President Obama’s critics, more numerous than ever as his term-and political influence winds down, see the looming disintegration of the Iraqi government as proof positive that his policy toward that country and others in the region has failed.

To the contrary:  It suggests that he was right. Would the small residual force that critics think Obama should have left in Iraq have stemmed the tide of ISIS soldiers now sweeping toward Baghdad?  Or would it have required either a massive redeployment to stop ISIS or an unseemly evacuation of the residual forces to avoid defeat?  And when you look at the news footage of US armaments left in Iraq to bolster the Maliki administration but now abandoned by Iraqi defenders and being used against the Maliki administration.

Indeed, Iraq’s proto-democracy appears to be viable only so long as substantial numbers of US and other countries’ troops are there to secure democratic processes and keep warring factions from tearing each other and the country apart.  Once they depart, Iraqis’ sense of their national identity—the sense that they are parts of one country and not three, one Sunni, one Shiite and one Kurdish—is not strong enough to hold together a country whose borders were drawn by British civil servants close to a century ago.

Think of it as America’s King Canute moment.  Canute is remembered as the eleventh century Danish monarch who in a fit of vainglorious futility commanded the waves to stop.  In reality, it appears that Canute knew very well that the waves wouldn’t stop but commanded them to cease in order to demonstrate to his nobles that even a king did not have unlimited power.

Iraq’s disintegration demonstrates once again that even the United States, with its bottomless bank account, its willingness to risk and lose its soldiers’ lives and health, and its international hard and soft power cannot command centuries-old ethnic and religious chasms to come and stay together or cobble a democracy for and with peoples with no experience of self-rule.

Whatever made us think that we could?

Primarily our experience after World War II.  After forcing Germany and Japan into unconditional surrender, the US and its wartime allies assumed the political and economic governance of the two defeated powers.  Wartime leaders were executed, imprisoned or effectively exiled.  The structure of government was redesigned.  Even the two countries’ formal names were changed.  And from our tutelage, two strong and stable democracies and US allies emerged.

It has been said that success breeds confidence.  Here it bred overconfidence—the belief that we were rich and wise and resolute enough to turn autocracies into democracies and to turn enemies into friends and allies, if only we were willing to deploy enough military might, invest enough lives and money and stay long enough..

We were wrong.  Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are not Germany and Japan—not already-industrialized countries, not nations with histories of self-government.  A decade of exposure to American political values, of US oversight of the forms of democracy, has not taken root.

Now we need to look from one aspect of our post-World War II experience to another.  Instead of trying to replicate our success in Japan and West Germany rebuilding countries from the ground up, we need to replicate our patience and fortitude toward the countries of Eastern and Central Europe during the 45 years between the end of the war and the collapse of the Soviet empire and the Soviet Union.

In the years after the war, Republicans made a lot of noise about rolling back communism and Soviet domination in Eastern Europe. But everybody knew that the US was not going to confront Soviet military power and precipitate another land war in Europe—especially after President Eisenhower, the former general who knew America’s military capability better than anyone else, declined to intervene in the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

But the fact that the US could not oust and replace communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe didn’t mean that we couldn’t do anything.  The CIA had a robust presence in the Soviet Union and across the satellites.  American soldiers and American armaments reinforced the countries on the western side of the Iron Curtain.  We spent massively to stay ahead of the Soviets in the nuclear arms race.  We reached out to the other side in a succession of summits.

And we waited, while the fundamental flaws in communist economic policy undermined the economies and public support of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, whose citizens could see Western European prosperity just across their western borders.

Historical analogies are never more than approximate.  Our enemies in the Middle East are not states, as they were in Eastern Europe, but non-state forces.  The threats against which we must defend ourselves are not symmetrical, force against force, but asymmetrical.

But we have spent thirteen years testing the hypothesis that the way to fight terrorism is by reconstituting countries so they are less hospitable to terrorists and it hasn’t worked.  It hasn’t worked partly because, being non-state actors, terrorists can easily relocate.  And it hasn’t worked because despite our willingness to expend lives and money, ours and our adversaries’, we have not been able to remake Afghanistan and Iraq, and what stability has been achieved has not so far survived our departure.

Despite his inability to turn back the waves, King Canute, so Wikipedia says, “maintained his power by uniting Danes and Englishmen under cultural bonds of wealth and custom, rather than by sheer brutality.”  Maybe there’s a lesson there for us.


  1. Jay
    June 22nd, 2014 | 5:21 pm

    As always, a very accurate perspective.

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