Rushing to the Finish

KENNETH M. POLLACK — When the United States withdrew from Iraq in 2011, they pulled the ground out from under a country still trying to find its political feet. The effects of this rush to exit threaten Iraqi democracy today. 

In 2016, we sat down with Kenneth Pollack again for a follow-up interview to discuss continuing challenges for Iraq’s governance and institutional development. 


In 2002 you wrote in your article, Next Stop Baghdad, that “As the conflict in Afghanistan winds down, the question of what the United States should do about Iraq has risen to the forefront of American foreign policy.” Many scholars today argue that continued fighting in Afghanistan is a result of Washington forgetting about the conflict there.  Is this assessment valid?

I expanded on the statement mentioned above in my 2002 book, The Threatening Storm. I noted that while major combat operations in Afghanistan had ended, there was still a commitment to Afghanistan that had to be met. One of the many reasons why I recommended not rushing to war in Iraq in 2003 was because the United States needed to get the situation in Afghanistan, and more broadly, with Al Qaeda, under control first. There were other people who felt the same way, who felt that the administration was turning too quickly away from Afghanistan to Iraq. This is one of the problems the United States has had with a number of nation-building missions: It has been too quick to walk away from them. Unfortunately, Washington policymakers were just as quick getting out of Iraq in 2011 as they were getting in; I fear that the US shifted back to Afghanistan prematurely, and that Iraq could have been a much more stable place had the Obama Administration not turned back to Afghanistan so decisively.

You continue to write that “The reasons for contemplating such dramatic action [invasion] have little to do with the events of September 11 and the subsequent crisis and much to do with the course of US policy toward Iraq since 1991.” Can the 2003 invasion thus be seen as a continuation of a “long Gulf War” rather than a wholly new conflict?

The 2003 invasion centered on the historical American relationship with Iraq — which is only a piece of the larger American relationship with the Persian Gulf — that dates back to the 1968-1971 period during the British withdrawal from east of Suez. It is also crucial to put the Iraq invasion into the context of the Islamic revolution in Iran, which fundamentally transformed the dynamics of power in the Middle East, and forced the United States to involve itself in the Persian Gulf to an extent that it had traditionally tried to avoid. Indeed, the 2003 invasion was defined by America’s Iraq policy, its policy toward the Persian Gulf, and the Persian Gulf’s role as the critical supplier of oil to the international economy. The invasion had very little to do with the global war on terrorism. Saddam Hussein’s support for terrorism was certainly on the long list of his crimes against humanity, but it was very low on that list; it certainly did not justify an invasion or any other dramatic action toward Iraq.

There had been a desire amongst key policymakers to topple the Hussein regime for several years before the 2003 invasion. How can scholars today put the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq into its appropriate context, that is, what forces precipitated an invasion in 2003?

The timing of the invasion was born of a variety of different factors. There was a set of larger trends underscoring events in the Persian Gulf, and the continued variety of United States strategies for dealing with the Gulf nations, none of which were very successful. Washington’s frustration with the Persian Gulf this grew rather than diminished over time, as it tried different steps — each of which represented just an incremental increase of American involvement. And so there was a sense building up in Washington over time that the US had tried a variety of different ways of dealing with the Gulf — using a proxy; offshore balancing; onshore balancing — and none of them had solved the problems of the region or diminished the problems for the US. In fact, these problems seemed to only get worse. This interpretation helped fuel the decision to invade in 2003.

More specifically, by 2002 containment was becoming increasingly unfeasible. The very tight containment of Iraq that the United States and the United Nations had put in place back in 1991 had essentially collapsed. The choice posed to US leaders was one between living with a very loose containment of Iraq or doing something dramatic. That was the situation in policymaking circles by the end of the Clinton administration, and certainly by the beginning of the Bush II Administration. President George W. Bush tried another Smart Sanctions resolution in the United Nations that failed dramatically. The UN was only willing to pass the pieces of the resolution that loosened the sanctions, but was unwilling to pass the pieces which tried to tighten the sanctions on military and dual use technology. It thus became very clear that the UN and the international community simply was not willing to invest the kind of political effort that would have been required to maintain a tight containment of Iraq. And so Americans were faced with a very unpalatable choice.

Ultimately, the proximate cause of the invasion’s timing was 9/11. Although the attacks were not directly connected to Iraq, they had mobilized the American population. They aroused fear and anger such that the American public was willing to contemplate making the investments in blood, treasure, and political capital that were necessary to deal with the threats facing the US from the Middle East. Before 9/11, the idea of invading Iraq had been ridiculous. I and a number of other people had argued previously that an invasion, in theory, might be an interesting way to handle the problem posed by Saddam, but that there was no way the American public would support it. September 11, of course, changed that conversation completely. Some members of the Bush Administration even believed that there was a direct relationship between Iraq and 9/11; some high-ranking members of the administration “felt it in their bones.” They were absolutely convinced of this interpretation, and believed that 9/11 mandated going after Saddam. The veracity of this sentiment varied between members of the Bush Administration. There were some people in the Administration who had always believed that Saddam was the source of all US problems in the Middle East — terrorism or the Arab/Israeli peace process, for example. To these people, Saddam had to go before these problems could be addressed.

There were other people, including the Vice President, who saw 9/11 and Iraq in a different light. Vice President Cheney famously did not make a big investment in Iraq in the first year of the Bush Administration. But after 9/11 he developed his “one percent option,” the notion that even if there was at least a one percent risk that somebody like Saddam might put the worst weapons in the hands of the worst people, it was necessary to do everything possible to get rid of him. Herein it is possible to see how 9/11 changed the thinking of different Bush Administration officials in different ways. But the interesting thing is that these different visions all coalesced around the common theme of “we have to invade Iraq, and we have to invade Iraq very quickly.”

After the 2003 invasion, there was a fear that the failure to find Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) hard far more sinister connotations, that these missing weapons may have crossed the border into neighboring countries or even fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda. How did proponents of the War interpret the lack of evidence for Iraqi WMD in the months after the invasion?

In the immediate weeks after the invasion, I assumed that the these weapons would eventually be found. I never believed that the Iraqis had big stockpiles of weapons. What I had assumed was that the Iraqis had maintained simply a production capability. It seemed reasonable that, in the first few weeks, the production capabilities were well hidden, but would eventually be uncovered. Over time, however, it became clear that the Iraqis did not even have these production facilities. For many people, it was extremely difficult to recognize that they had been wrong about the extent of Iraq’s WMD. Those people began to speculate that these weapons may have crossed the border or were taken to other countries.

This confusion illustrates the deep conviction that everyone had about Saddam’s possession of WMD. It was one of the most important lessons of the entire Iraq experience: How utterly convinced everyone was that there were WMD. The number of people who truly believed that Saddam had not reconstituted his weapons program was vanishingly small. The vast majority of people, even those people who were opposed to the war, still believed that Saddam had probably reconstituted because that is what US intelligence — and every other intelligence community in the world with some ability to report on Iraq — had concluded. It was widely assumed that Saddam had these weapons. Those who opposed the war made the case that despite these armaments, he could be deterred, and those who believed war was necessary argued that he could never be deterred, or at least would be very difficult to deter him.

This general agreement on Iraqi WMD shows why it was so difficult for many people to give up the conviction that Saddam had these weapons. It was logical, then, that when the inspectors were unable to find the envisaged weapons, many analysts assumed that they were moved. In many ways the situation echoed Karl Popper’s theory of the defense of paradigms. When the evidence begins to indicate that a paradigm is imperfect or incorrect, the first move is always to defend the paradigm, and never to recognize that the paradigm itself was wrong.

In your 2010 report for the Saban Center at Brookings, Unfinished Business, you note that an “American strategy for exiting Iraq must include a ruthless prioritization of US goals and objectives.” Has such a prioritization been conducted effectively?

The Obama Administration did not prioritize Iraq very highly, and so they exited. It has certainly continued to pay some attention to Iraq, but not nearly as much as I and other Iraq experts had hoped that they would. That was a ruthless prioritization. I disagree with the prioritization; obviously there are many other people who agree with it.

American soldiers entered Iraq with a clear plan of attack but a much murkier plan about winning the peace and building a new state. Now that US combat troops have left the country, is there a clear sense amongst analysts that US policymakers have a coherent diplomatic strategy to Iraq?

Unfortunately there is no such coherent policy; this absence is part of the continuing tragedy in Iraq. When the US invaded Iraq, the Bush Administration had no plan for the country. The goal was simply to transition the country to domestic rule; this meant putting Ahmed Chalabi and the INC into power as quickly as possible, and then walking away.

Unfortunately, the US did not have a clearer exit strategy than that with which it entered. The Obama Administration certainly has developed a series of tactics and has pursued various gambits. Yet there simply is not any evidence of a strategic idea about how to move Iraq toward greater stability, let alone a willingness to employ the tools of government. Iraq has such a low priority with the Obama Administration that there is not any inclination to use tools that are available to the United States to try to move Iraq in a positive direction. The tools that are being employed are very, very small-bore. For the most part the United States is not using them in pursuit of any larger strategic goal, but rather in pursuit of very near-term practical goals.

You argued in 2011 that “America’s troops in Iraq — disliked, misunderstood and resented though they were — were Iraq’s best shot at achieving a stable, pluralistic, prosperous future.” How were these soldiers misunderstood, and could an American combat presence still be beneficial to Iraqi stability?

Many Iraqis believe that the United States was manipulating their political system in ways that it simply was not. There were many reasons why the United States should have played a much greater role in Iraq’s political system, and chose not to do so, even before 2011. But there was a widespread perception among Iraqis that American troops were part of an American effort to manipulate the Iraqi system, and manipulate it for the benefit of American oil companies, American defense contractors, or the Iranians, who some Iraqis insisted the United States was colluding with. There were any number of conspiracy theories. This reality speaks to the fear and mistrust that the Iraqis had for the United States which evolved over the course of time.

Is there a role for American troops in Iraq moving forward? At a theoretical level, sure. It would have been wonderful to have kept an American military presence in Iraq. I think it is well known that US generals commanding in Iraq, and other experts within the US government watching Iraq, all felt that the US should have kept 20 to 25,000 troops there after 2011. I think had this been done, Iraq would be in better shape today. But that was not the case, and there is no way American troops are going back. I cannot imagine an Iraqi government inviting US troops back in, and I cannot imagine an American president sending them back in.

You mentioned that there was distrust among Iraqis of the American troops, that they were subverting the Iraqi political system. Was there ever a distinction made amongst Iraqi politicians between soldiers and military leaders, and American diplomats and civilian policymakers? Can such a distinction be exploited or examined to allow Iraq to become a stable ally?

Many Iraqis feared the American troops because they saw them as part of an American occupation. They used that term in a very pejorative sense. It assumed a colonialist tone, as opposed to the technical legal sense with which the Bush Administration tried to use that term. It was an unfortunate usage. Iraqis believed the United States was trying to stay in the country to conquer it, to hold it for the American empire. The troops were not just the symbol of that aim, but they were also the physical manifestation of it. There were other Iraqis who saw the American troops in a very different light. Certainly there were any number of Iraqis who saw the Americans positively, because they were reassured by their presence. They feared the outbreak of violence and they knew they could rely on the Americans to prevent any of that from happening.

The American diplomats certainly lacked the military positives, but they also lacked some of the negatives. It was certainly harder for Iraqis to see American diplomats as being part of an American colonial occupation, although certainly some Iraqis did. The situation was not as categoric as it might seem. That being said, very few Iraqis believed that American diplomats would be able to protect them and be able to prevent outbreaks of violence the way that American troops would.

Moving forward, though, American diplomats have not been able to make a huge impact. I would argue that American diplomats could have a greater impact in Iraq if they had more tools at their disposal. The US missed a number of opportunities — which some folks in the Obama Administration recognized — to build America’s leverage with Iraq before the troops withdrew, and even after the troops withdrew. The Administration has not done very much to build this confidence or leverage. It has not given the Iraqis an incentive for Iraqis to continue to work with the US. It has not given the Iraqis much of a need to hold on to the US either. Certainly, though, there are some incentives. In particular, Prime Minister Maliki tries very hard to use the United States as a counterbalance to the Iranians. But even in that arena, Washington has not pushed back hard enough on his behalf with the Iranians to make itself that important to him.

American diplomats have had a limited ability to effect any meaningful relationship with Baghdad. They have had some very able diplomats, particularly in recent years. James Jeffrey was a terrific ambassador, and I think that Steve Beecroft has some real possibilities to improve the relationship. But Washington has not given them the tools that they need.

What tools should the diplomats be given to have the most effect in their position?

First, the United States should offer more aid packages to Iraq. There is no question that Iraq has much more money these days than it did a few years ago, but not nearly as much as it needs. Moreover, American money is often easier to use than Iraqi money. Aid packages which are bigger than what are currently being provided could have a very significant impact on Iraq.

Second, it will be crucial to develop the mechanisms in the strategic framework agreement far more than has already been done. The tendency has been for Washington to call up the Iraqis and say they would like to have a meeting of a committee. And when the Iraqis do not show, American leaders essentially forget about it, and that is the end of it. Instead, Washington should press the Iraqis publicly to honor the agreement, to make it clear to Iraqis what they could have gained from it. With Iraqi public support for the agreement, it would be very difficult for the Iraqi government to ignore it.

Third, the United States ought to be willing to “name and shame”: Publicly stand up and praise Iraqi leaders when they do the right thing, and publicly condemn them when they do the wrong thing. The Obama Administration has been rather quick to criticize members of the opposition, and reluctant to criticize Mr. Maliki’s government when it does the wrong thing. That is deeply problematic.

The United States still has some influence in Iraq, and Iraqis still respect what it has to say. The US is seen as a nation that gave birth to the country’s democratic system, something that all Iraqis are very attached to. The Iraqi public still likes their democracy, and hates seeing it chipped away. The US should assume a key role as the entity that stands up and points out when people are making mistakes, when people are subverting the Iraqi democratic process, especially when it is being eroded by the government itself. Government abuses, of course, always have the most pernicious effect. If Americans were willing to support Iraqi democracy, they would find that Iraqi politicians would exert themselves to a certain extent to avoid public condemnation by the United States.

Ned Parker, former Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times, argued that “The US government is so wedded in public to the story of Iraq as a success, it fails to confront the Iraqi government on its excesses that threaten the state’s long-term stability.” Is this a fair assessment of the current regime, and how can US diplomats exert pressure on the Iraqi government to maintain stability and growth?

My last point was exactly the point that Ned Parker was making, which is that the Administration has fallen down when it has come to hauling out the Iraqi government and pointing out when it has taken actions that were either contrary to or subversive of the Iraqi democratic process. The administration is far too quick to excuse the government’s misdeeds by claiming that the alternatives to Maliki would be just as bad if not worse. I have made this argument to any number of US government officials: “You do not necessarily have to like any of the alternatives to Maliki, or like them better, to nonetheless recognize that what the government is doing is deeply problematic and subversive of the Iraqi political process.” Even if the Prime Minister has the best intentions — I do not think anybody knows what the Prime Minister’s ultimate intentions are — the great problem with democracies is that they are about process; if the process is bad, there will be a bad outcome.

Whatever the Prime Minister’s motives may be, the way that he has acted has terrified large numbers of Iraqis, and set terrible precedents. Issuing an arrest warrant for central bank director Sinan al-Shabibi is another step in the wrong direction. The recent arrest of the Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi’s bodyguards has greatly overshadowed this previous action. The constant use of arrests to pursue people who are clearly identified as political rivals of the Prime Minister and sources of independent power beyond the Prime Minister’s control, is a horrific precedent. It is unconscionable that the American government continues to simply say nothing about it.

Some observers interpret Maliki exhibits some of the qualities that Saddam Hussein had during his regime, including a strong preference for centralized authority and harshness towards political dissenters. Should these qualities raise any alarm for observers, or are such parallels stretching the truth?

Before the invasion of Iraq, I always got very uncomfortable when people compared Saddam to Hitler, because of the emotional resonance of that analogy. For that reason, I am very nervous when people make the comparison between Maliki and Saddam. Nouri al-Maliki has not come close to Saddam’s terror, his totalitarianism, his paranoia, his genocidal tendencies; Saddam is in another league. What I prefer to say is simply that there are any number of things that Prime Minister Maliki has done that have set terrible precedents and have been deeply subversive of Iraqi democracy. They are the actions that look to many Iraqis to be those of a dictator, certainly consistent with how Iraqi dictators have acted in the past.

I have spoken with the Prime Minister on several occasions. He seems to believe very fervently in democracy. But he also is someone who is — let us be kind — deeply fearful of any possible threat to himself, to his control, or to his power. He often lashes out in ways that ultimately are destructive to the cause of Iraqi democracy. It may be that in a place like Iraq, with the kind of immature political system there, that this was inevitable. The behavior that Maliki and the opposition are exhibiting is largely a function of the kind of stillborn democracy that the US left behind.

Mr. Parker described the idea of an “anti-precedent,” that there is no precedent for democracy in Iraq, but there is a precedent of Saddam’s rule to not follow.  Is the current instability in Iraq, the current fluctuations of the Maliki government towards democracy and away from democracy, due to the idea that there is no precedent for democracy, that the US left a “stillborn democracy” in Iraq?

These kinds of situations are always products of several different factors. I think what this question points to is probably the most important component of the Iraqi reality: The US did not leave fully functional democracy. It is going to be very tough for Iraqi democracy to take hold and flourish in the years ahead. It is not impossible, but it is going to take a lot longer than many in Iraq or the West hope. That reality is unfortunate because of how quickly Iraq was beginning to change and improve democratically in 2008 and in 2009, and in the beginning of 2010. Those developments were quite stunning.

I wrote a number of articles discussing the transformation that was taking place in Baghdad, how democratic incentives were taking hold and changing people’s behavior in ways they never expected, in ways that were uncomfortable and alien for them. Yet they were having to do it, they were all learning democratic processes. It was incredible to see them being forced to do so and doing it, and really changing how they approached political issues. Even changing the tenor of arguments.

Once the US left — and left at a point where it did not leave strong institutions behind — the old political culture immediately reasserted itself. The US troops prevented the fear that defined traditional Iraqi politics from reemerging. Once the fear returned, though, people went back to what they knew. It was how people normally behave in the kind of Hobbesian state of nature which defined Iraq for most of its modern history. The current situation is one wherein people do not feel they can trust the government, wherein they cannot necessarily trust each other, and wherein they must live by their wits, by whatever strength is available to them, by cutting whatever deals they can to protect themselves.

While Baghdad is still struggling to consolidate its power and bureaucratic structure, Iraq’s place in the broader region seems even more uncertain. How might analysts begin to understand the role that Iraq will assume amongst its neighbors in the coming months and years?

This is one of the huge questions circulating in the foreign policy community. Iraq itself is weathering a very difficult period, and even if somehow it could be isolated from the rest of the region, the prospect of whether Iraq would have emerged as a functional democracy was always going to be very difficult, and probably quite a low probability. It was always much more likely that Iraq would have emerged either as a new autocracy or as a state in civil war.

Add on the problems of the region and Iraq’s prospects look that much darker. The civil war in Syria is clearly creating spillover in Iraq that is feeding into the country’s own tensions, fissures and various other problems. The Turks are pulling in one direction, in some ways pulling along with the Saudis and the Jordanians, and the Iranians are pulling in a very different direction. Those forces are threatening to rip the country apart. There is a great deal of uncertainty in the region right now, particularly because of the Syrian civil war, but also to some extent because of the larger Arab awakening and the Iranian nuclear issue.

You note in a 2003 New York Times op-ed that “History may forgive the United States if we don’t find the arsenal we thought we would. No one will forgive us if we botch the reconstruction and leave Iraq a worse mess than we found it.” Can comprehensive and thorough examinations of the US role in Iraq since 2003 — and perhaps even since 1990 — yield positive as well as negative findings? 

As of this interview I think it is very hard to find anything positive. Iraq today is arguably better than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but not by a whole lot. It is not clear that it is going to remain better. The international community needs to worry that Iraq will descend either into a new dictatorship or back into civil war. Perhaps it is possible to say that a new dictatorship would be better than Saddam’s, because it would be hard to imagine any future Iraqi dictator being as totalitarian, as genocidal, as aggressive, or as reckless as he was. But it will still be an autocracy, if it emerges.

The prospect that Iraq is going to emerge as a functional democracy is not zero, but it seems low at the moment. And the prospect that Iraq may descend back into civil war seems high. The amount of blood, treasure, political capital, and lost opportunities that the United States sunk into Iraq as a result of the completely botched reconstruction of the country looms large. Ultimately history is going to be less concerned with the rationale for going to war and the flaws therein, and is going to be much more concerned about how badly the United States handled post-war Iraq, and how much it lost in those mistakes.


KENNETH M. POLLACK is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, where he served as director in 2009-2012. He has previously served as an Iran-Iraq military analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (1988-1995), and as director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council (1999-2001).

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