Representative Seth Moulton has shown formidable intellectual and leadership qualities as a freshman congressman from Massachusets, and he’s demonstrated courage as a member of the 1 percent of America who actually fought in our last two wars, something I respect, since I’m among the 99 percent who didn’t.
That’s why I had hoped for more from him than his recent assertion that the United States has no political strategy in Iraq and that President Obama is responsible for the death of Moulton’s close friend, a heroic Iraqi soldier.
America is punished with enough hyper-caffeinated foreign policy debates that do little to inform and much to divide. We need people like Moulton — genuine experts — to acknowledge complexity, even difficulty, and help find the path forward.
If only the answer in Iraq were as easy as churning out another report to Congress that details a political strategy. Iraq policy has suffered not because of a lack of paperwork (there have been plenty of congressional reports) but because of an unwillingness by Iraqi politicians to make tough compromises.
The United States doesn’t lack a political strategy in Iraq. Our strategy is to help Iraq hold together so it can defeat ISIS. We are pushing and prodding Iraqis to see it is in their interest to agree on oil-revenue sharing, to pick an inclusive cabinet, and encourage Sunni buy-in and participation in the political process.
None of it happens easily. It didn’t happen when the United States had more than 100,000 boots on the ground, and it hasn’t been completed since they departed or since we committed troops to help Iraqis fight ISIS. Pressing Iraqis to get their political house in order is precisely why the United States sent two clear-eyed, astute Foreign Service officers — Steve Beecroft and Stu Jones — to Baghdad as our last two ambassadors. It’s also why Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joseph Biden were both on the ground in the last 45 days pushing the factions. American diplomacy is like an iceberg; we see only a fraction of the hundreds of phone calls, meetings, and exhortations in Baghdad, Washington, and the region spent leveraging Iraqi decision-making.
American policy-makers haven’t forgotten to forge a political strategy, nor did they have the luxury of waiting on Iraqis to get their political house in order before we began fighting ISIS intensely. Proof of diplomatic realism was manifest as the anti-ISIS coalition was being formed in 2014. As ISIS ravaged Iraq — as Mosul fell and the Iraqi Army retreated from thugs in convoys of pick-up trucks — America faced a daunting reality. Sunni countries resisted joining the anti-ISIS coalition because they saw Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki — sectarian and divisive — as a bigger problem than terrorists taking over half of Iraq. Successful American diplomacy helped achieve a political transition as Iraqis pushed Maliki aside for a more inclusive prime minister. Skeptical Sunni countries in the Persian Gulf came to Iraq’s aide.
A year later, it still isn’t easy. And it won’t get easy. There are some things only Iraqis can do. I wish more Iraqi politicians looked in the mirror and asked why Moulton’s Iraqi friend could lay down his life for his country but they can’t reach political compromise for Iraq’s stability.
We have to level with our own country that Iraq policy is complicated because Iraq is complicated. Expect Iraq to infuriate us with fits and starts of political progress, gridlock, and protest. It is after all a multiethnic society with a complicated history, trapped within artificial borders drawn in the sand by Sykes and Picot one hundred years ago with precious little understanding of the region.
Let’s also leaven our criticism with humility. Iraqis didn’t rise up and choose democracy in 2003; it was imposed on them. Thirteen years later, we should end the rhetorical war over that war, but remember that democracy — politics by negotiation, not brute force — is new to Iraq.
Even as Iraq confounds and concerns, we can’t wash our hands of it. Like it or not, we have huge interests. Iraq is the most democratic Arab state, we have a profound counter-terror stake, the country holds enormous energy reserves, and it is our only Shi’ite partner in the neighborhood.
We can succeed. ISIS has lost almost half the territory it once controlled. Ironically, ISIS’s existential threat forced some unity. The Kurds realized that immediate independence wasn’t viable, and they couldn’t tolerate a terrorist haven next door. Many Iraqi Shia politicians encouraged cohesion to confront ISIS as the only way to beat back Sunni extremists at home without becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of Shia Iran in the process.
Iraq is important for all the same reasons Iraq is complicated. Leaders like Moulton can shape a smarter dialogue and a path to progress. Maybe then, Iraq will one day find a political mosaic that creates lasting stability. That’s the best way to honor Iraqis and Americans who gave all — by ensuring success worthy of their sacrifice.
David Eckels Wade was chief of staff to the US Department of State from 2013-2015.