What America Thinks About Iraq

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

We are back to 2003 (the invasion), 2007 (the surge) and 2011 (the withdrawal).

How does the American public view what is going on in Iraq now—the burgeoning war, the fall of cities we fought for and held, the possible fall of Baghdad and collapse of the country? What attitude and approach will the public support in response?

Here is my sense of it:

They believe going in was a disaster.

They believe getting out is producing a disaster.

They believe the leadership in Washington failed in both cases, in the going in and the getting out.

They think George W. Bush made the wrong call and followed with the wrong execution. As for those around him, they had no realistic plan for what would happen after they toppled Saddam Hussein and seem to have thought George Washington would spring from the rubble and take it from there. There was no sophisticated and realistic game plan. American officials did not seem to know there was a difference between a Sunni and a Shia. They were frequently taken aback by events that were predictable. They assumed good luck, a terrible, ignorant thing to assume in a war.

Presidential SealThe American people believe Barack Obama viewed Iraq as a personal political problem. He won the presidency being antiwar, so he had to anti-the-war before his re-election. He did it without appropriate care and commitment, which probably guaranteed we’d wind up where we are. He is out of his depth. Amazingly, he radiates a sense that he isn’t all that invested, that he doesn’t drag himself to the golf course to get a break and maintain balance, but plays golf because at the end of the day Iraq, like other problems, challenges and scandals, isn’t making him bleed inside.

And the people don’t like any of this. Americans hate incompetence, but most of all and in a separate class they hate bloody incompetence. They’ve seen it now from two administrations.

The bright spot: the earnest professionalism of our troops, still unsurpassed.

But the loss of life, the financial cost, the loss of prestige, the sense that somehow after 9/11 we squandered the sympathy and support of the world, the danger to the world when America gets beat or looks beat, the inspiration that is to evil-mined men—these things the American people would hate.

They do not believe the architects of Iraq told them the full truth in the past or are candid and forthcoming even now, more than 11 years after the invasion. The architects do not speak of what they got wrong and exactly how, when and why. Their blame-laying sounds less like strength than spin. They are like what Talleyrand is said to have observed of the Bourbons, that they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Because of this they are not fully credible when they critique the current president and not fully believable when they offer new strategies.

When you have been catastrophically wrong, you have to bring a certain humility to the table.

The American people do not want to go back into Iraq. They will be skeptical of all plans, strategies and decisions because they lack faith in their leaders. If they hear “We are sending 300 military advisers,” they will think: It won’t end there.

They don’t think the U.S. can solve Iraq. They think only Iraq can do that.

They think Iraq’s leader, Nouri al-Maliki, is a loser who lives in Loserville. Get rid of him? Tell him to resign? Sure, but who will replace him, the loser next door? Should he reform his government, making it more respectful, tolerant and accountable? Sure. But do the ISIS forces look like men who’ll respond, “Wow, he’s being a better leader, let’s lay down our arms!”? No, actually, they don’t.

Americans are worried about the country’s standing in the world. They want to be the most powerful and respected nation in the world, because we are Americans and that’s how we roll.

They have the feeling that what America has to do now, the missing part of the terrible puzzle, is to rebuild here, refind our strength, be rich again, pump out jobs, unleash our energy—let it bound out of the ground and help turn our economy around. We have to reset our relationship with ourselves. We have to become strong again, that is the key not only to our confidence but to the world’s respect.

Here’s a terrible thing, though: They don’t really have any faith that this remedial work will get done, that the economy will be reignited, that corrupt governance and crony capitalism will be stopped. They don’t have any particular faith that it will happen with the generation of losers we have now in Washington.

They do not think the bad guys will wait and pause while America says, “Excuse me, I need time to get my act together. Could you present your existential challenge later?”

They think the fighting in Iraq will likely continue and spread. They think a lot of violent extremists will kill a lot of violent extremists, and many good and innocent people, too. It always happens. It’s one of the reasons war is terrible.

They know something is wrong with their thinking, that it’s not fully satisfying but instead marked by caveats and questions.

If the oil we need is truly endangered, and this tips us into a new recession . . .

If daily we see shootings and beheadings of people who bravely and kindly stood with us during the war . . .

All that will have a grinding, embittering effect on the public mood. And if some mad group of jihadists, when their bloody work in Iraq is finished, decide to bring their efforts once again to an American city—well then, obviously, all bets will be off.

But the old American emotionalism, the assumption that the people of Iraq want what we want, freedom and democracy, is over. Ten years ago if you announced you had reservations about what the people of Iraq really want, and maybe it isn’t freedom and democracy first, such reservations were called ethnocentric, belittling, bigoted. That’s over, too. We are hard-eyed now.

In the long term, the U.S. experience in Iraq will probably contribute to the resentment, the sheer ungodly distance and lack of trust and faith between the people who are governed in America and those who govern them, between the continent and the city called Washington. Also between the people and the two great political parties, both of which blundered.

Pundits and pollsters have been talking about a quickening of the populist spirit, and the possibility of a populist rise, for at least a quarter-century. But they’re doing it more often now.

There is a growing disconnect between the American people and their government, a freshened resentment. We are not only talking about Iraq when we talk about Iraq, we are also talking about ourselves. We are not only talking about the past, we are talking about the future.

The architects of the Iraq invasion always said the decision to invade was crucial, consequential, a real world-changer. They had no idea.