For Dick Cheney, Iraq means never having to say you’re sorry.
His recent interviews damning President Barack Obama for losing Iraq make him sound as if he’s suffering from amnesia. But memory loss has not blotted out his central role in creating the Iraq mess. He just refuses to admit he made any errors.
His willful blindness doesn’t only distort the past; it also helped create a terrorist haven in Iraq that didn’t exist before America invaded. And his hubris dims any future chance of driving out the terrorists.
Let us count the ways in which the former veep made our Iraq troubles worse.
There’s no room here to rehash the deliberately distorted intelligence he used to justify the invasion. But note Cheney’s ignorance of the country he was taking on.
He swallowed the claims of Ahmed Chalabi, his favorite Iraqi expat, that the country’s Shiites would embrace us, that the Iraqi army should be disbanded and the Sunnis broken. Cheney also believed that Iraq was ripe for democracy (with Chalabi as its leader) and that Iran would be the next domino to fall.
He was wrong on all counts and refused to listen to those who knew better. Chalabi had no followers in Iraq after spending 30 years abroad. Most poor Shiites distrusted Americans; they had not forgotten that George H.W. Bush called on them to rebel in 1991 and then let Saddam Hussein crush them. From these disaffected Shiites emerged the radical Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias that now look to Iran.
Indeed, contrary to Cheney’s dreams, the ouster of Saddam and the rise of Iraq’s Shiite majority gave Iran unprecedented influence in Baghdad. In recent days, the most powerful man in the Iraqi capital has been Gen. Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
In Cheney’s time, Sunnis were marginalized, leading Sunni tribes to link up with al-Qaida offshoots – something we are seeing again, with disastrous results. And the Iraqi army was never able to rebuild as a national force after it was dissolved on Cheney’s watch. Witness its collapse last month.
None of this excuses Obama’s contribution to the current crises in Iraq and Syria.
While Cheney overreached, Obama did far too little. He never developed a strategy to deal with the rise of al-Qaida offshoots in Syria or their return to Iraq. He paid scant attention to the sectarian maneuvers of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, which pushed frustrated Sunnis to align, once again, with jihadis.
The Obama White House made too little effort to ensure that there would be a small follow-on U.S. force in Iraq after 2011. Such a force would have provided leverage for U.S. officials to mediate between Iraq’s sectarian factions, as they did successfully in the past. That might have headed off the present crisis.
Yet it is simply wrong to say, as Cheney does, that all was well with Iraq when he left the White House. Yes, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus had rescued Cheney and his boss from their self-made disaster, and Obama should have tried harder to maintain those gains. But Iraq’s institutions had been broken by the U.S. invasion, and its shaky new foundation was all too susceptible to collapse.
Equally key, the wretched mistakes made on Cheney’s watch soured the American public on further involvement in the troubled country. Americans remember the money wasted on projects Iraqis never needed and the troops who died because the Pentagon failed to provide body armor or up-armored Humvees in Cheney’s time.
Our country is weary of Iraq. The polls show it. My email shows it. Even the Republican Party is split on any future involvement in Baghdad. Americans don’t want to hear about the terrorist threat emanating from Iraq – even though it is real now in a way that it wasn’t in 2003. The public doubts this threat because Cheney twisted the truth last time.
The former veep’s arrogance is so infuriating that it blinds many Americans to the danger posed by jihadis in Syria and Iraq who are training Europeans and Americans. Anything he says is assumed to be hype.
Cheney’s constant castigation of Obama blinds many on the right to the fact that the president is finally doing the right things. Secretary of State John Kerry is belatedly pressing the benighted al-Maliki to reach out to Sunnis (and privately encouraging all of Iraq’s factions to seek another leader). He is warning Iran and Saudi Arabia that fueling a Shiite-Sunni holy war in Iraq threatens the whole region – and the world.
Kerry may be too late. There may be no option left other than containing the new jihadistan that spans eastern Syria and western Iraq.
But one thing is certain: American bombs at this point can achieve little until there is more inclusive leadership in Baghdad that persuades Sunni tribesmen to stop supporting the jihadis. This won’t happen without intense U.S. diplomacy. Right now, Kerry and Obama need to focus nonstop on Iraq.
If Cheney wants to be useful, he should encourage such a White House focus while showing some humility. Or else he just should just shut up.
Instead, he is fueling the fury of those on the right who oppose anything Obama does, as well as those on the left who disbelieve anything Cheney endorses. This will increase domestic opposition to any coherent policy.
Full of righteous indignation, Cheney is once again helping to destroy Iraq.
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