The month-long operation to oust the Islamic State (ISIS) from the city of Fallujah ended in victory for Iraqi troops in late June when with the help of U.S. air strikes, the Iraqi army was able to advance into the center of the city and take control of the government. Fallujah was “fully liberated,” the Iraqi army commander said. That victory, like most military victories, came at a heavy cost. On the same day, the United Nations reported that 85,000 residents of Fallujah had been forced to flee their homes during the fighting, tens of thousands of them ending up in a sprawling desert tent camp where food and water are scarce and daylight temperatures can reach 120 degrees. A government spokesman said, “The large number of displaced people and the quick movement has made it very hard to meet their needs.”
A similar flight from Fallujah took place twelve years ago, when an estimated one-third of the population left Fallujah to escape invading American Marines. In April 2004 the Marines fought Iraqi defense forces block by block as F-16 warplanes dropped 2,000-pound bombs on the city. More than 600 Iraqis and 27 Americans were killed in the fighting. The city was left in ruins, most of its buildings turned into hollowed out shells.
The U.S. war to oust Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein accomplished its mission, but like all wars it left even more serious problems in its wake, including a revival of Sunni-Shiite conflict, and suicide bombings that continue to take a huge toll in human lives. The latest bombing, on July 5, killed at least 157 people in Baghdad’s Karada neighborhood. A number of smaller bombings the same day killed another 16 people.
Many of the suicide bombings are carried out by the Islamic State (ISIS), whose predominantly Sunni forces hold a portion of territory on the border between Iraq and Syria. Although the U.S. provides Iraq with military aid, ISIS’s tactics, including suicide bombings, make it an elusive enemy.
The rise of that organization is proof that in Iraq the law of unintended consequences is operating in force. There would be no ISIS today if George W. Bush had not taken the U.S. into war in two Muslim countries, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Neither country posed a threat to the U.S. But under the guidance of his vice-president, Dick Cheney, Bush brought with him to Washington a group of foreign policy advisers who were determined to change the face of the Middle East, and if necessary to do it by force.
The incoming advisers had already described their goals in a 1996 paper entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” which was originally intended for Israel’s newly elected prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The plan was to replace Arab dictatorships with Western style free market economies, starting with Iraq. The U.S. and its allies would first oust president Saddam Hussein, a move that Israel’s Likud party leaders had been urging. Seeing Saddam toppled would convince Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad and other Arab strongmen that their days were numbered, and their regimes would quickly fold.
As events later proved, the Cheney strategists grossly underestimated the costs, human and otherwise, of carrying out their plans. Saddam had held together with canniness and an iron hand a nation that was patched together by Britain and France in 1915 from several tribal, ethnic and religious groups. By 2003 Iraq was a relatively prosperous, modern nation, where women attended universities and were free of the restrictions imposed on most Arab women.
The U.S. invasion to oust Saddam, and the sanctions that preceded it turned Iraq into a broken country, with its economy in a shambles and most of its infrastructure destroyed. After Saddam was ousted, the old religious and regional rivalries he had suppressed resurfaced, and were intensified when U.S. occupation chief L. Paul Bremer imposed a system of political representation based on ethnic identification that favored Shiites over Sunnis.
The Islamic State would not exist today if Bremer hadn’t also disbanded the Iraqi army and sent home or to military prison its highly trained officers. It was in an American military prison that several of those officers came together and created ISIS, using their technical knowledge and organizational skills to make it an effective organization. Since then the organization has exerted a powerful pull on thousands of men in the Muslim world and the West, for reasons that have not been adequately explained.
The current turmoil in Iraq, and the endless war in Afghanistan, should be all the evidence needed to deter U.S. policymakers from future interventions abroad, but since historical amnesia is the hallmark of those who favor military action, Obama is currently under pressure to involve the U.S. in yet another Middle East war. A recent letter signed by 51 former State Department diplomats urged him to call for military strikes on Syria in order to oust President Bashar-al-Assad.
The diplomats maintained in the letter that only the threat of military force could persuade Assad to resign, but recommended that the force be “limited” to the use of weapons such as cruise missiles. The signers did not say what should be done if limited force wasn’t enough to convince Assad. Nor did they say how many civilian deaths caused by the cruise missiles would be acceptable. So far the war in Syria has killed 400,000 Syrians and displaced at least 5 million others.
Advocates of U.S. military intervention in Syria have also urged that the U.S. provide more support for the rebels fighting Assad’s army. But those voices were at least temporarily silenced by revelations that many of the U.S. weapons intended for the rebels were being diverted by Jordanian officers and sold in the arms bazaars that criminal gangs rely on. Jordanian authorities arrested several of the officers involved in the scam but quickly released them.
The fact that the U.S. has been perpetually at war since 1950, when it intervened in Korea, is evidence that the use of military force tends to multiply problems rather than solve them. And almost invariably those problems cause hardships for others. Among today’s victims of past American military interventions are the children and teenagers who are attempting to cross into the U.S. from Mexico only to be caught and sent back by the U.S. Border Patrol. The children are fleeing to escape crime and gang violence in their home countries, especially Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador.
The violence these children are trying to escape can be traced back to the 1980s, when the Reagan administration provided arms and money to right-wing regimes and their death squads in those countries that were attempting to crush popular liberation movements. The U.S. interventions resulted in the perpetuation of societies in which land and wealth were owned by a privileged minority, while the rest of the population was struggling to survive.
The real problem at the Mexican border with the U.S. is not the desire of large numbers of Central American youths to enter the U.S., but Washington’s refusal to acknowledge America’s role in creating the dangers they are trying to escape. Instead of sending them back to those dangers, we should welcome them as we once welcomed the refugees from Vietnam.