The Iraq debate that has erupted three, seven, eight, twelve years too late may end up disproving the old adage, "Better late than never." Why? Too many glaring omissions from the conversation.
Let's start with Numero Uno: Islam.
Once again, Islam is not part of the discussion.
This omission, as readers of the website know, is nothing new in discourse about American wars in the Islamic world. Many's the time over the past dozen years when I attended Washington confabs where the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan were discussed at length by experts, military officers and elected officials, but Islam was not even mentioned -- and certainly not as as a cultural-legal-political-religious roadblock against the US policy of "nation-building" through "hearts and minds" "counterinsurgency." This is a failed policy, as we have seen.
Or have we? I think not.
So long as the discussion of Islam -- its collectivist laws of supremacism and inequality, just for instance -- is not part of the "what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan?" conversation, the answers will continue to elude us.
It is refreshing, to be sure, to hear straight talk from retired Army LTG Daniel Bolger on "the surge" -- namely, that "the surge" was a strategic defeat, and not, as the continuous loop on the Right will repeat and repeat, a "Bush victory" "lost by Obama." For years, the chimera of "surge" "victory" was a running theme of my column and posts, along with much commentary on see-no-Islam COIN doctrine as promoted and executed by top brass from Petraeus to Mullen to McChrystal and others.
Even a rudimentary understanding of the clash between Islamic law vs. Western law should have made it obvious at some point over the years that the US was never going to "stand up" the Islamic Republic of Iraq as an "ally" in the "war on terror [jihad]," no matter how many "surges" of Western troops there might be. But this is exactly what President Bush promised us, all according to the (Bernard) Lewis Doctrine of "democratizing" the "Arab world" by force.
In 2004, the Wall Street Journal published a key discussion of the rise and weaponization of the "Lewis Doctrine" under President Bush, noting:
If his [Lewis's] prescription [to democratize the Muslim Middle East] is right, the U.S. may be able to blunt terrorism and stabilize a region that, as the chief exporter of oil, powers the industrial world and underpins the U.S.-led economic order.
If it's wrong, as his critics contend, America risks provoking sharper conflicts that spark more terrorism and undermine energy security."
Notwithstanding other factors, I think we can say without caveat that Lewis's critics were right about the faulty premise of this Bush-Lewis Doctrine. The 2006 battle-cry of the professor emeritus, then 90 years old -- "Either we bring them freedom or they destroy us" -- echoes through the intervening years with a rather terrifying dissonance. Bringing "them" -- the Islamic world -- "freedom" -- the mechanism of democracy -- turned out to change nothing in the underlying Islamic culture of jihad and sharia.
Why this is true has to do with those elementary and irreconciliable differences between Islam and the West that still remain beyond the range of today's retrospectives. When Islam is outside the discussion, so, too, is sharia (Islamic law). That means crucial factors such as the sharia demographic is outside the discussion, too. Pew polling from 2013 indicates that 91 percent of Iraqis support making sharia the law of the land (the figure in 99 percent in Afghanistan). Such allegiance to sharia should certainly indicate, even to policymakers, that the spectacular exertions of Western-style "nation-building" can never be more than a mirage anywhere in the Islamic world. And that is true no matter how much blood, billions, or years the US were to spend in Iraq or anywhere else -- unless, that is, the American mission were to eradicate Islam from Islamic society and recreate a new society in our own image: Pax Frankenstein -- a non-starter.
Ironically, the COIN-nation-building policy was an even more ill-conceived mission in that it did try to recreate Islamic Iraq in our own image -- in the image of our own institutions, for sure -- without taking into account the chasm between Western and Islamic ways. Because we still don't take this chasm into account, people are scratching their heads and asking themselves, "What went wrong?"
A second omission in the current outbreak of debate concerns the nature of "the surge."
It's important to remember that "the surge" was conceived in two-stages.
1) The US and its allies would fight to provide Iraqis with security, That was Stage One -- and, yes, that mission was accomplished. To this initial extent, the surge was successful, but success was confined to Stage One.
2) In Stage Two The Iraqis, beneficiaries of this hard-won security, were supposed to then go about the civilized process of "national reconciliation."
The ultimate US goal, as the 2007 Iraq Strategy Review put it, was an Iraq that would be "an ally in the war on terror."
For reasons specific to Islamic society, Stage Two never happened, dooming the overall, see-no-Islam surge strategy to failure.
In our see-no-Islam vaccuum, however, the vision of "Iraq the Ally" would continue to be enthusiastically promoted on the Right. As late as 2010, even as Iraq released Qais al-Khazali, the Iranian-proxy killer of five US troops, kidnapper and killer of Britons (and current "ally"-battler of ISIS in Iraq) John McCain was still burbling about Iraq the model, the beacon for other nations. In December 2008, Charles Krauthammer wrote a piece titled "Iraq, American Ally" in which he called Iraq "our best hope for the kind of fundamental political-cultural change in the Arab sphere that alone will bring about the defeat of Islamic extremism."
It all sounds so disconnected from reality now -- at least, I hope it does. So long as the subject of Islam is taboo, however, we are doomed to construct see-no-Islam strategies that lead to more defeats.