I think of it now, all the time.
Sometimes I think I even recognize a place on TV I had been, having spent a year in the midst of America's occupation in Iraq, 2009 to 2010. I was a State Department civilian, embedded in turn with two Army brigades of some 3,000 men and women each, far from the embassy and the pronouncements of victory and whatever bright lights Iraq might have had.
Why We Lost
I grow weary of the drumbeat for the U.S. to return to Iraq and blow more stuff up. Drones, airstrikes, Special Forces on the ground who are somehow not really "boots on the ground," the whole bloodlust redux. As a human being I decry the loss of more life. As someone who cares about America's foreign policy, I cannot believe (while believing) that we are continuing to misunderstand the larger picture, what might be called the strategic or long-term, once again for the tactical, the expedient, the short-term.
Of all the many reasons that American could not win its Iraq War (and I wrote about one of the most significant, the failure of occupation and reconstruction, in my first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People), perhaps the one that is most applicable now is the most basic.
America's wars in the Middle East exist in a hallucinatory space that imagines Blue Forces fighting Red Forces, Saving Private Ryan but with more sand. Instead, in Iraq right now, there are multiple layers of war going on. For those who like to look ahead a bit, you may feel free to substitute "Syria" for "Iraq" in the rest of this blog post. Most of this also applies to Libya, Afghanistan and pretty much the rest of the post-9/11 conflicts.
A War of Layers
Instead of a good old-fashioned and simple Our Side vs. Their Side, Good Guys vs. Bad Guys, the Iraq War is one that comprises many layers. They intermingle and overlap, kind of like the multiverse of conflict. Some of this is painted here in quibbly broad strokes, but the core is solid:
- On the surface you have our media-view war: jihadists vs. the Iraqi government. This is the dominant view in Washington, because it is the easiest to understand in bullet points, the easiest to sell to the American people through an ever-compliant media, and the one that fuels the most defense spending. These sorts of wars need plenty of hardware for the U.S. military, and lots of stuff to sell to whichever side we support. You can imagine these sorts of wars as winnable with brave-but-Spartan-like-expendable Special Forces, drones and intel. Blue-on-Red wars also lend themselves well to demonizing the enemy. (Terrorists! Who kill people! Who want Sharia law!)
- Another layer down in Iraq you have one group dominated by Sunnis vs. another Shia one fighting a political civil war for actual control of territory. The U.S.'s willingness to devote extraordinary amounts of money and military power to keeping "Iraq" from not separating on its historical boundaries (the present national borders were drawn up by British cartographers after World War I) over eight years of occupation and for four years of pretend democracy left this one on long-term simmer awaiting today's boil. Enough power and money can reduce it again to a simmer, maybe, but it won't go away.
- Below that layer are intra-Sunni and intra-Shiite struggles for turf and power. There is no such thing as a Sunni corporate structure, or a Shia one, with privates reporting to colonels who report to a white house. Instead you have religious allegiances, tribal allegiances, warlord allegiances, paid-for allegiances, allegiances of convenience and so forth. At some point they turn on each or dissolve, for a while, then often reassemble. During the occupation the U.S. thought they could play off various groups against each other, but the Iraqis had been doing that long before any Americans got there, and they knew the game so well that it was like putting the U.S. soccer team up against the Brazilians.
- Laying under it all is the much larger proxy war, including Iran's support for the Shiites/Malaki government and Saudi/Kuwaiti support for the Sunnis. To zoom out for a moment, this is why invading Afghanistan without dealing with Pakistan failed as well. Failure to focus on the proxy war means things like America supporting the same side as the Iranians in Iraq. Inevitably this results in adding to Iran's regional power with every drone flight and Special Forces action undertaken. That Iranian regional power will end up projecting itself elsewhere, such as in Syria, where the U.S. and Iran are not on the same side.
- And just because many Americans don't see/know this, the people in the region sure do: Should airstrikes occur, or even just more military aid into Iraq, once again America is at war in an Islamic country. You cannot win the hearts and minds of dead people, but you sure can help recruit their friends and relatives against you. And it's worse in that the U.S. promised to leave forever in 2011. America is also supporting Shias against Sunnis, which does not go unnoticed outside Iraq.
Why the U.S. Cannot Win
The reason that America can never win the war in Iraq et al. is that to win the war, you have to somehow win all the layers of wars, and to win all the wars involves impossible-to-resolve paradoxes such as siding with the Iranians here while opposing them there. Here and there are often in reality the same place, such as along the Syrian-Iraqi border. It can't be done. It is a trick, like a carnival ring-toss game. The only way to win is not to play. Otherwise you're just another sucker with a fist full of quarters to trade for a cheap stuffed animal.
Bonus: Not convinced yet? The aircraft carrier being sent into the Persian Gulf to launch any airstrikes the U.S. deems necessary is the USS George H.W. Bush. Construction of the ship began in 2003, planning and funding well before that. I know irony is not a government thing, but using a carrier named after the president who first got us deep into Iraq is one level of it, and then realizing we have been in Iraq so long that we now have an aircraft carrier named after the president who started the adventure is another.