Opinion

OPINION | NIALL FERGUSON

A ‘catastrophe of epic proportions’

The Mosul dam undergoes strengthening late last month.

SAFIN HAMED/GETTY IMAGES

The Mosul Dam undergoes strengthening late last month.

There is a powerful symbolism in the impending collapse of Iraq’s Mosul dam. Built on the cheap by Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s, it holds back up to 2.9 trillion gallons, roughly twice as much as Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. We all know what happened when Hurricane Katrina breached the levees around Pontchartrain’s south shore in 2005.

No hurricane is needed to breach the Mosul dam. Built on a weak foundation of soluble gypsum, its stability has always depended on continuous grouting. In 2007 the US Army Corps of Engineers, alarmed by what they had found after the invasion of Iraq, carried out repairs. But since the withdrawal of American forces, the dam has deteriorated. For several weeks in 2014 it came under the control of the Islamic State. Fighting between ISIS and Kurdish Peshmerga forces is just one of the reasons the dam has fallen into disrepair. A contract with an Italian engineering company to overhaul the dam has only just been signed by the Iraqi government.

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Not for nothing did US Army engineers call Mosul “the most dangerous dam in the world.” According to Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, a breach could send a 45-foot high wave down the River Tigris, killing between 500,000 and 1.5 million people. It would, Power said, be “a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions.”

The irony is of course that a humanitarian catatrophe of epic proportions is already happening in neighboring Syria. According to the Syrian Center for Policy Research, the death toll in the country’s civil war now stands at 470,000. The war has driven 4.8 million refugees to flee Syria, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. And Syrians form only a part of the flood of displaced persons and migrants currently arriving in Europe by sea at a rate of roughly 100,000 a month. Last month around a third of asylum applicants in Germany were from Syria. 15 percent were from Iraq. 11 percent were from Afghanistan.

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As secretary of state at the time of the invasion of Iraq, General Colin Powell famously warned “If you broke it, you own it” — the Pottery Barn rule. Future historians will struggle to decide which was more disastrous: President George W. Bush’s decision to “break” Iraq by sending the US military to overthrow Saddam Hussein, or his successor’s decision to call for the overthrow of the Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad, without willing the means, while at the same time withdrawing US forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Either way, this is where we are: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are all broken. But President Obama doesn’t want to own them.

The crucial point, symbolized by the Mosul dam, is that this could all get much, much worse.

This disaster cannot be blamed solely on Obama, of course. Yet there is something appalling about the way he now seeks to pass the buck — to deny that he is any way to blame. In a fascinating article in this month’s Atlantic magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg reveals a president in denial about the consequences of his own sins of omission and commission. Everyone is to blame — everyone but him.

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At the top of the list of scapegoats are America’s traditional allies: not only Britain and France (Libya’s descent in chaos was all their fault), but also Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Then comes the Washington “foreign policy establishment” and the US military, who are always trying to “jam” him into going to war. Next in line are the members of his own cabinet — among them former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — who urged him to intervene in Syria in 2012.

The president says he is “very proud” of his decision in 2013 not to follow through on his earlier threat to take military action if the Assad regime used chemical weapons in Syria. He seems not to understand that by asking President Putin to “force Assad to get rid of the chemical weapons,” he opened the door to Russian intervention in the Middle East, a region the Kremlin was effectively shut out of by Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s. Wondering why the death toll in Syria has leapt upwards in recent months? Step forward President Putin, whose air campaign against every anti-Assad force except ISIS has been a horror show.

The Mosul dam symbolizes the critical state of an entire region. Like a huge wall of water, barely held in check by a crumbling dam, the combined forces of Islamic extremism, vicious sectarianism, networked terrorism, and Arab-Iranian rivalry have yet to wreak all the havoc of which they are capable. But why worry? The president has stuck to his foreign policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid sh--.” As for ISIS, according to Goldberg, the president likens them to the Joker in the Batman movies.

Last week’s good news? Google’s AlphaGo computer is ahead in its five-game tournament against Lee Se-Dol, the world champion of the ancient Chinese strategy game of Go.

Can someone please persuade AlphaGo to run for president?

Niall Ferguson is Laurence A Tisch professor of history at Harvard and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
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