Littwin: The uncertain saga of the U.S. in Iraq |

Littwin: The uncertain saga of the U.S. in Iraq

Mike Littwin
Fair and Unbalanced

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008 as the anti-Iraq-war candidate, it all seemed so easy.

He’d wind down the war, pull out the troops and leave Iraqis to sort out their own country with the help of American “advisers” — whatever that word means.

That was then.

It didn’t work out that way, of course, any more than George W. Bush’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq worked out in any way. It took Obama much longer than he, or any of us, could have anticipated to effect the pullout in 2011. The anti-war crowd knew he was trying, so they gave him the time. And many hawks, other than the never-embarrassed Dick Cheney and John McCain, eventually became too embarrassed to say much one way or the other.

But the lesson of Obama’s Iraq is that you can win a Nobel Peace Prize and still become captured by your own generals. The bombing continues while the facts on the ground remain largely the same.

What’s different is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the terror group that has replaced al-Qaeda as the enemy. ISIS, of course, wants nothing more than to drag America into direct war in Iraq and Syria. The most optimistic reading is that it would take three to five years to control ISIS, which has taken full advantage of the sectarian split in Iraq that has long been evident to anyone paying attention — Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurd.

Read the experts, military and otherwise, and you get the futility involved. One Obama official said the latest addition of 450 advisers would have a “fairly dramatic effect on (Iraq’s) situational awareness of the enemy.” Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Atlantic of an open-ended war against ISIS, and said that any dramatic effect courtesy of 450 advisers “would be astonishing and unprecedented.”

Once, it looked as if Obama had ended the mission. He did it to much criticism, to the point that the McCainites were saying he had lost Iraq, a war that was lost many years before. If getting out is losing, then that’s exactly what Americans wanted. Every poll showed that. It’s clearly what Obama wanted, too.

That was then, and then there was ISIS, beheading Americans, helping to make ever more chaotic the war in Syria and then taking all that ground in Iraq, ground that had cost too many American lives. Americans aren’t sure what they want in Iraq — other than Americans not being killed. And Obama isn’t sure, either.

But who could have possibly imagined we’d be where we are today, Obama being accused of creeping incrementalism — which is the worst kind of incrementalism? He’s either sending too few troops or too many. But you have to laugh when you hear Lindsey Graham calling for 10,000 American troops, as if that would put things right. Which war has he been watching?

The latest increase sounds so Vietnamish. The adviser/troop count will soon reach 3,550. The military contractor count is as high as 6,700. The Air Force is doing 80 percent of the bombing, even though Obama promised when announcing air support that we wouldn’t become Iraq’s air force.

And now Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggests the possibility of more bases — which would be Iraqi-run, but which would have American advisers. These so-called “lily pads” would almost certainly mean more American troops.

We know two things:

One, the last thing Obama wants to do — or will do — is to send actual ground troops back to Iraq to do the actual fighting. He did wind down the American part of the war, and Obama’s part in the battle against ISIS won’t be Americans in combat.

Two, the American role in Iraq will outlast the Obama presidency. There is grumbling in Congress about the troop level — too high or too low — but Congress will do nothing about Iraq. The next president — and those running for the job — will still be dealing directly with Iraq.

The question, by the way, isn’t whether ISIS is winning. What’s obvious is that ISIS is winning too much. How did Iraq’s government lose Mosul and Ramadi? Why aren’t American bombs enough to change the equation?

And so the advisers are there to encourage and train Sunni tribes to fight in Ramadi and to help give them confidence that a Shiite-run government deserves their trust — a trust that Baghdad has in no way earned. Will Sunnis fight in a Shiite-led army? Will violent militias from all sides become less violent? If the many sides of Iraq can’t be brought together — and does anyone really think they can? — all victories are inevitably short-lived.

The great Dexter Filkins led off a recent piece in the New Yorker with this story: Just after taking Ramadi, the ISIS victors made a video, shot from a newly captured Iraqi police station. The video showed, Filkins wrote, great boxes of American mortar shells and bullets. It showed Humvees, fresh off the lot, nearby. “This is how we get our weapons,” the narrator said in Arabic. “The Iraqi officials beg the Americans for weapons and then they leave them here for us.”

It’s an old story. But now we’re left to wonder if we should expect anything different from a new chapter.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for