Iraq may not have the will to survive – and that’s not even the biggest problem

Airy talk of sending in troops distracts us from the hard work and tough thinking necessary to secure the international order

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

War is a contest of wills. Although determination alone does not guarantee final victory, its absence makes defeat all but inevitable.

Way back in the 1770s, Britain lost most of its north American colonies because rebellious Americans cared more about gaining their independence than George III and his ministers cared about preserving their empire. Today, if Isis fighters care more about creating their caliphate than Iraqis do about preserving their country, then Iraq may be doomed.

At Saratoga in 1777, a scratch force of American Continentals and militiamen defeated 7,000 regulars under the command of Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne. It marked a major turning point in the American Revolutionary War. We may eventually see Isis’s recent seizure of Ramadi as an event of comparable significance.

As with the British at Saratoga, so with the Iraqi security forces in Ramadi: overall performance was abysmal. The Iraqi failure there elicited a harsh reaction from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff. ‘The ISF was not driven out of Ramadi,’ he told reporters. ‘They drove out of Ramadi.’ Rather than fighting, they fled. The secretary of defence Ashton Carter echoed that judgment, saying, ‘We have an issue with the will of the Iraqis to fight.’

Who is this ‘we’? Carter appears to believe that the United States owns a large block of shares in Iraq Inc., whose directors are therefore obliged to take into account what ‘we’ think. To be fair, he is merely reciting what US policymakers take for granted when contemplating the world at large. America’s entire miserable Mesopotamian misadventure has its basis in the conviction that ‘we’ possess the capacity to shape Iraq’s future, guiding its people, once liberated from the grip of tyrannical rule, toward some happy future.

The abject performance of Iraq’s army has rendered a definitive verdict on such expectations. The United States has spent over a decade trying to build a nationally representative Iraqi force able to maintain internal order and defend against external threats. That effort has failed, calling into question whether Iraq can survive as a coherent nation-state.

Those implicated in the failure on the US side — two presidential administrations along with high-ranking military officers who offered policy advice or exercised field command — have a shared interest in concealing the extent of the debacle. So the reflex response from official Washington is to try a bit harder. Hence the narrow range of what passes for a policy debate. On one side are those who argue for more air strikes to keep Isis at bay, or more US trainers and advisers to help Iraq’s army get its act together. On the other are those who favour recommitting US ground troops — the irrepressible Senator Lindsey Graham feels certain that 10,000 will suffice.

What is absent and much needed is an effort to distinguish between the fate of Iraq and the danger of Isis. Neither the United States nor the West generally is in a position to determine the former. Both the US and what’s left of the West have a strong interest in addressing the latter.

A sound policy response begins by realistically gauging that danger. Isis does not pose an existential threat to the West. In no way does it compare with 20th-century totalitarian threats such as Nazism and communism. Whatever its appeal to an alienated fringe, radical Islamism cannot compete effectively with the allure of modernity, however tawdry. Violent jihad is a niche product. Isis is no more likely to absorb the nations of the Persian Gulf into its caliphate than George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda was to turn them into liberal democracies.

The actual threat posed by Isis is threefold. First is the cultural threat: a demented assault on antiquities. However much western leaders may condemn such behaviour, none has volunteered to deploy soldiers to protect museums or ruins. Second is the humanitarian threat, which finds those captured by Isis viciously murdered or otherwise forced to submit to draconian rule. Western governments may care slightly more about young girls subjected to coerced marriages than about marble statues demolished by sledgehammers, but western publics show little inclination to expend large sums or to put soldiers at risk to end such practices. As with the assault on culture, the assault on human rights elicits handwringing but no action.

The third threat makes for less dramatic TV than the first two — but it is the one that matters. The West has a profound interest in fostering a neo-Westphalian international order: a world of nation-states willing to share the planet while abiding by certain basic norms. The West itself, and Europe above all, embodies such an order, which offers not utopia, but at least some semblance of stability and decency. That such an order, governed with sufficient wisdom, can advance the wellbeing of all humankind is a proposition that western statesman should never cease to promote.

Of course, the obstacles to creating such an order are legion. Pre-eminent among them, at least at present, is the existence of groups bent on destroying the nation-state system. Isis is one. Presently targeting Iraq and Syria, it entertains ambitions that go much further afield, as illustrated by this week’s attack on a mosque in Saudi Arabia.

The necessary western response to this threat — one unlikely to materialise unless Washington takes the lead — is to forge a coalition of nations committed to preserving the system. Ideally, it would allocate a central role to Iraq as the state most directly imperilled by Isis. But Iraq has demonstrated its unsuitability for the task.

Who then? Which nation is in a position to fight Isis and has the will to do so — indeed, is already committed to that fight? The question answers itself: Iran.

Isis seeks to destroy Iraq, a prospect that the West should view as catastrophic. Iran seeks to incorporate Iraq into its sphere of influence, an outcome that the West may well consider unfortunate. But in the real world, where statesmen must choose between actually existing alternatives, the latter outcome is preferable to the former.

Rather than ignoring or opposing Iranian efforts to defeat Isis, the United States should provide tacit assistance. What do they need to prevail? That’s what ‘we’ should offer. Better that than to send 10,000 troops on yet another fool’s errand.


Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Andrew J. Bacevich is writing a military history of America’s war for the greater Middle East.

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Show comments
  • Dr. Heath

    I’ve located Mrs. Obama’s ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ video. Any suggestions as to why there appears to be nothing of this nature regarding those thousands of children and women who’ve murdered or enslaved in Syria and Iraq?

    • explain that

      Because you are in fact an Assad ally?

  • Diggery Whiggery

    Iraq is not and never has been a country. It’s a nation but not a country. When that is the case, the nation never lasts.

    • JoeCro

      Iraq is a state formed from a collection of tribes and differing religious groups that have petty rivalries going back hundreds of years. It now has no real reason to continue to exist. The time will come where unfortunately ISIS will be the recognised government of parts of former Syria and Iraq- we in the west need to get used to the new reality, the effects of the end of the Ottoman empire are still unravelling less the 100 years later.

    • MichtyMe

      Neither a country or an nation. A state, a system of governance, arbitrary creation by external imperial rule, with the use of ruler, for all those nice straight lines on the map.

  • ISIS encourages all Muslims to take up arms and commit murder and terrorist acts within European states based on teachings in the Koran. It is quite clear that either a large minority or the majority of Muslims share the same political objectives as ISIS. Is that not a threat?

    • explain that

      Is that ‘quite clear’? Only a feeble brain would concoct such levels of lucidity.

      • will91

        About twice as many Muslims have left Britain to go and fight in Syria than currently serve in the British Army. That’s just the numbers who we know about and are actually willing to go through the rigmarole of travelling there. Undoubtedly, there will be some thousands of people who either sympathise or fully support the world view and objectives of IS.

        Furthermore, do you have difficulty grappling with the term “large minority”?

        • Fried Ch’i

          Oi, thicko. Large minority can mean anything. They have the same objective as IS? I am quite happy to give you more of what is m y objective if you so wish.

          • will91

            Your devastatingly poor grasp of English has managed to further undermine what was already an unintelligible smattering of words. In your arrogance you have tried to present this rubbish as some sort of coherent point. Very shoddy! Please try a bit harder would you 🙂

          • Fried Ch’i

            Ha ha ha, that’s more like it, thicko.

          • will91

            I feel sorry for you…

          • Fried Ch’i

            That’s me looked after then.
            Who’s got the pleasure of enduring your presence on this planet?

        • Bertie

          Fingers crossed those bastards dont make it back 🙂

    • Shazza

      Islam is just doing what it says on the tin.

      • Fried Ch’i

        Shouldn’t you be in the garden sorting out that decking?

        • weejonnie

          Well you are blind – either deliberately or accidentally – as to the potential effects of IS.

          • Fried Ch’i

            Yeah yeah matey – I am tank boy, I grew up in a tank and I am long past being scared of a small number of Arab peasants with handguns. I know you lot love childish excitement – carry on being all excited about stuff.

          • Moa

            The real danger is not the jihadis, it is the cultural transformation of the West into gradually accepting more and more Sharia. It starts with halal meat in your schools, an inability to criticize Islam’s false memes (since Islam was invented as an imperialist political system by Caliph Abd al-Malik – has the media told you that truth yet?) and goes on until you end up like Lebanon, and then it proceeds rapidly from there.

            This is the ‘Milestones’ process described by Sayyid Qutb – and your denial of its existence helps it to progress.

            You are the one who doesn’t understand what it going on. Jihad is not only by the sword, old boy.

          • Fried Ch’i

            If you are in doubt about who your friends are or whteher you indeed had any friends, stop making enemies (in your head) everywhere.

          • Moa

            You are truly pathetic. Thanks for admitting you have no facts to debate with and you have lost. You have no counter-argument at all. What a loser!

          • jack

            I actually am beginning to look forward to subjugating a few women. That and the virgins sounds like fun. Bring it on!!

          • Moa

            You know that real-life virgins look like Sarah Boyle, right? unless you are into children.

            And subjigating women is only for lamers who lack the skills to “pull” (as the English say) a willing lady.

          • jack

            Im alking about the 36 virgins I get once I blow myself up and get into paradise as a first class martyr. Or maybe it was 66. I forget the exact number. doens’t matter anything more then ten will be fine. I’m easily pleased.

          • Moa

            You don’t even know, do you? you don’t even know that the Islamic Paradise is about booze and gay orgies, since the fairytale says it is filled with “young boys with skin as white as pearl”. No surprise, since Islamic tradition has Mohammed as a bisexual pedophile who used to suck on the tongues of Hussan and Hussein bin Ali (his nephews).

            The mythological Islamic paradise is filled with bad-tempered jihadis who are drunk pedophiles engaged in an under-age gay orgy. Sounds like Hell to me.

          • jack

            Boys? Boys. What about the virgins? I am quite sure that virgins are involved in my contract. If I don’t get my virgins I shall protest to the local paradise Martyrs union.

          • Moa

            Actually, there is academic dispute about the wording used in the fragments of the earliest Korans (which, interestingly, differ quite a lot). The reward may not be virgins but ‘white grapes’ which were highly prized by the desert peoples of Arabia.

            And protesting to the local paradise Martyr’s union only works if you are a Christian Matyr (which involves getting killed for your faith), rather than a Mohammedan Matyr (which involves killing others for your faith and being killed in the process). The Mohammedans think any disagreement is ‘apostasy’ which not only gets you beheaded, it also ensures you don’t get into their great gay-orgy in the sky.

            How much do you like grapes?

          • jack

            I saw subjugation at the movies and it looks harmless enough.

          • Moa

            LOL. You think the movies and reality are the same.

        • Shazza

          Why don’t you just go back to bullying all of your wives? Make sure they finish their schoolwork before they start supper….

          • Dogsnob

            Nice one.

    • Brogan75

      and that large minority lives in OUR cities.

    • Grace Ironwood

      Does the West really need a unified country of Iraq above other solutions?

      What interest does this serve?

      Why not partition between the different peoples of Iraq ?

      The Kurds are committed to their survival against Islamic State, they are not religious maniacs and, of the factions, they appear the most “deserving” of our help to protect and recognise their territory.

      Why do our interests require pandering to the lying child of NATO, Turkey ?

  • William_Brown

    There is no will to even recognise that Islamism is a growing problem, worldwide, let alone a will to defeat it.

  • Richard Eldritch

    I think the West is happy with ISIS. Iran,Syria, and the awfull Iraqis are all tied up fighting them. Our home grown headbangers tend to join them and get themselves killed. Then when ISIS win and form their caliphate, we can bomb them back to the 21 century. Everyones a winner, that’ll teach the Iraqis to murder their liberators.

  • weejonnie

    The real concern is that the young kids in ISIS-controlled territory are currently being brainwashed to accept ISIS theology – they are creating hundreds of thousands of people fully indoctrinated into ISIS belief and willing to fight and die for it. If ISIS is not removed in the next two years there will be a serious problem that will require the ‘foot and mouth solution’.

  • BlackArrow

    Discussion posted on a British Military History group:

    British Military History, the Iraq War, and the Iraq War Inquiry

    It has now been 12+ years since we attacked and invaded Iraq on the fraudulent claims of the Bush and Blair governments like, for example, Iraq could attack *us* (or you Britons, anyway) in 45 minutes. And your Prime Minister Blair’s – British – support for us attacking Iraq was morally and politically decisive in convincing many, many Americans that we should do so.

    The Iraq war at least equals the most unjustified, shameful, and criminal chapters in British military history. Despite political statements to the contrary – lest we forget “Mission accomplished!” – the war continues as grievously as from its very start, and Depleted Uranium contamination and medical/genetic destruction is just one permanently and progressively ongoing, hideous legacy of that.

    Here is another unpunished legacy, graphically and conscientiously presented by National Public Radio, which everyone here should have the courage and integrity to look at, even if only American victims are shown:


    This was/is “British leadership in Iraq/Syria.”

    Why should ANYone defend Britons’ … including Falklanders’ … sovereignty, rights, and interests internationally, if you flout and mock the international rule of law which, as the stewards of Magna Carta, you once championed, for which you were once emulated?

    Will Chilcot’s Iraq War Inquiry report evidence culpably/prosecutably criminal fraud as it should, or will it be just another ignominious, dishonourable British establishment coverup? If Chilcot does do its Duty, will British war criminals then finally be brought to justice, to set an example for us Americans to emulate and take equivalent action?

    Additionally, if it is finally, officially established in Britain that the Iraq war was criminally begun, a killing of conscience-stricken whistleblower Dr. David Kelly, to cover up the crime committed and to terrorize others from trying to expose it as well, would have been a wrongful, itself criminal, misapplication of the Official Secrets Act, if that was invoked to attempt to legitimize it. Will that crime too at last be exposed and redressed?

    The world wonders … and waits … impatiently.

    • BoiledCabbage

      The world in general could not give two sh*ts for the collective problems of the British Army or indeed, the British people and/or their conscience.

      The problem before us is how much carnage ISIS are allowed to conduct before they are evaporated.

      • BlackArrow

        You are completely wrong.

    • cartimandua

      It wasn’t a lie. They could actually field battle field chem weapons in 25 minutes. They had missiles which could reach Cyprus. The moment sanctions were lifted Saddam would have bought WMDs from unpaid ex Soviet military and scientists.
      In 2001 Putin told Bush the Soviet legacy WMDs were insecure and Zawahiri said if you had the money you could buy a nuke from a Russian.
      Since then the G20 have spend billions helping Russia clean it up.

  • bengeo

    ISIS – the long arm of Saddam Hussein reaching out from the grave.

  • JohnCrichton89

    Iraq might not have the will to survive, why should the majority of Muslims give a tosh about trying to create a peaceful middle east……. the worse things get the more of them get to come to the west and spread their hateful religion fleeing ‘persecution’. Islam has been spread by war and slavery and misery since it’s inception.

    • Moa

      Well said. But Islam is merely a tool. It is doing what it has always done. The question is then, who brought it into the West and shields it from criticism?
      the political/academic/media Left, and increasingly, even the center-Right.

      The reason is several-fold:
      1) the Left is all about acquiring POWER. Importing a ‘New Proletariat’ does just this. Immigration Minister Barbara Roche of the Blair Labour Government made it clear that the immigration was deliberate.

      2) the West is in demographic decline and many countries are reproducing at below replacement rate. This means the welfare state is unsustainable (and the true reason Greece is in dire straits – they are not having many children, despite what stereotypes tell you). The political class has already chosen welfare-state socialism over nationalism. And the EU is on board with this.

      3) the United Nations has the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) working as a voting block and dominating many agencies. It is the UN who foists refugees onto countries, and ensures that very few Coptic and Assyrian Christians are not accepted for resettlement while massive numbers of Muslims are.

      4) the center-Right wants cheap labour and to keep labour-costs down. Hence we see US Chamber of Commerce lobbying billions to promote (ie bribe) for open borders.

      Without national sovereignty (ability to resist transnational socialist bodies like the EU or pro-Islamist bodies like the UN/OIC) the West may not have the means to resist.

      Watch Turkey as well – recent statements show it is more dangerous in the long-term than ISIS for the health of Europe.

  • Lawence James

    The original comparison is based on a self-flattering view of the War of Independence and is utterly misleading. George III’s will to keep America was strong, Burgoyne was outmanoeuvered, although man-for-man British forces were more than equal to Americans, then and later. Britain’s resort to German mercenaries kept the war going, but it was ended by decisive French intervention.
    The modern Middle East is a different kettle of the fish. Isis emerged from the collapse of America’s brittle imperium in Iraq, just as the Mahdist jihad arose from the collapse of Egyptian power in the Sudan in 1880s. In turn, the Islamic state of Sudan was overthrown by an Anglo-Egyptian army in 1898 and the country passed into British rule. If there is any lesson from this and past jihadic wars, it is that they can be beaten, but that conquest must be followed by imperial government. For Muslims, this represented the will of Allah and had to be accepted until such time as His will changed.
    Today, the notion that imperial government is an antidote to failed or disorderly states is unpalatable, not least because it carries with it the promise of prolonged wars of pacification. Fighting them would require large, heavily-armed forces and air superiority, which, I suspect canot be delivered by the mercenary guns-for-hire companies.

    • Ivan Ewan

      And it also boiled down to a choice between securing America or maintaining the disunity of Europe.

      I can definitely see why the latter course was chosen.

      I’m not sure George III’s will had anything to do with it though, as such.

  • Dr Corvus

    The Merovingian puppet government in the Green Zone is finished. The state of Iraq, and the Middle Eastern state system founded under Sykes-Picot, is dead. Thus far the article is correct. However, Bacevich seems to misunderstand what the Islamic State is. The logic behind Sykes-Picot, and behind Gertrude Bell’s work in building Iraq, was to prevent what was always understood as the great strategic threat in the region: the rise of a new caliphate in the Jazira. That’s precisely what we’ve now got.

    Bacevich thinks the universalist ideal of a caliphate ‘appeals [only] to an alienated fringe,’ and that ‘radical Islamism cannot
    compete effectively with the allure of modernity, however tawdry.’ This is blatantly wrong. Furthermore, the West’s ability to resist the Caliphate has been wrecked by its [elite’s] commitment over decades to a crypto-theological universalism of its own. It is too late for the West to build a ‘neo-Westphalian international order;’ the West has spent the last two decades at least in destroying the Westphalian system of state sovereignty. It was only the day before yesterday that all decent people in the West looked forward to the coming post-Westphalian system, in which sovereignty would ‘evanesce,’ giving place to the just governance of global institutions armed with a ‘right to protect.’

    Still, it is probably true that Iran is the lesser evil. If the West wants to do anything useful, it should stop trying to undermine Assad, and accept that Iranian dominance north of Arabia may well be the best outcome.

  • WTF

    Islam is the inspiration and dissemination of all these barbaric practices and year on year more and more Muslims are being radicalized and I’m not talking about the Middle East. Unless our western governments wake up and ban this cancerous hate cult we’ll see one almighty civil war on the streets of Europe and the USA between Islamic followers and everyone else. Luckily for us, because of their non integration proclivities it will be easy to see the enemy within !

  • mrsjosephinehydehartley

    Any great unknown always ends up thick with lying shades of death. We can only hope and pray the people of this world will remember and somehow be able to seek and find the right light to follow ie our one true redeemer.

  • BoiledCabbage

    Although ISIS looks very, very similar to the Bolshevik revolution, at this stage, and the end picture is uncertain, discussions of existential threats are irrelevant if huge damage can be inflicted on either the oil supply or the fabric of the West. They key is whether it can buy advanced weapons. Pakistan is probably that key.

  • Patrick Roy

    Download, read, look at the routes to Europe and WEEP. Libya: a growing hub for Criminal Economies and Terrorist Financing in the Trans-Sahara.

  • Bonkim

    “The West itself, and Europe above all, embodies such an order, which offers not utopia, but at least some semblance of stability and decency.”

    Yes but with a world population of 7Billion + and rising and resources running out fast, ISIS is not the only threat that mankind faces. Large numbers of people are on the move across the globe, and minorities are suffering persecution and exploitation across the Globe. The West/Europe are losing power and influence as China and India are increasing theirs.

  • Ivan Ewan

    ISIS has done nothing to demolish the idea of nation states, compared to what the political elites of the West have done.

    How come we all get the same laws introduced within five years of each other now?

  • Brogan75

    Forget Isis, let them kill each other. clean up OUR streets and deport all the scum back to the caves where they come from. they can live under Sharia there.

  • Kennybhoy

    “Iraq may not have the will to survive…”

    The real question is, do WE have the will to survive …?

    “America’s entire miserable Mesopotamian misadventure…”

    Entire? I think I know what you mean here but could you clarify please? But in the meantime, if I understand you correctly, this quasi-isolationist/pacifist language is actually symptomatic of the real problem.

    “… has its basis in the conviction that ‘we’ possess the capacity to shape Iraq’s future, guiding its people, once liberated from the grip of tyrannical rule, toward some happy future.”

    You mean like Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the former Warsaw Pact members…? If what you mean here is that we lack the stomach and the stamina, the moral fibre, for such neccessary work then I wholeheartedly agree. But I don’t think that is what you mean here…? Please correct me if I am wrong…

    And, once again please correct me if I am wrong here, but have you not previously argued elsewhere that the US and the wider West are responsible for the current unholy mess that is the Middle East? How do you square this with your assertion above that the US has no capacity to shape events and outcomes in Iraq or the wider Middle East…?

    “The necessary western response to this threat — one unlikely to materialise unless Washington takes the lead — is to forge a coalition of nations committed to preserving the system.”

    And this response does NOT represent an attempt to shape the region’s future, guiding it’s nations and peoples, once liberated from the grip of ISIS barbarism, towards some neo-Westphalian international order?

    “The question answers itself: Iran.”

    Ah, now I get it, but for the benefit of those hereabouts who still don’t please see the article at the link immediately below. Particularly the section entitled “The War for/against/about Israel”.


  • Abie Vee

    Nonsense. The British lost the American colonies because they were defeated. Washington had the entire hinterland within which to withdraw his forces… he could dictate the terms of battle, of where and when to engage the enemy.

    Given the technology available at the time, given the vast distances involved, by sea and land, there was no sense in which the colonies could ever be “occupied” against their will by forces whose supply lines were over-extended with every forced march. Logistics… that what beat us.

  • Miller

    Iraq gone. it was never real to begin with. Kurds, sunni and shia ruled over by a Baathist. Saddam pulled it off cause he used the whip, you see the demons he was dealing with. Iran ain’t going to let iraq become sunni, i guess they be waiting on the 50 billion.

  • There is only Islam. And this is what it does.

    Get the hell out of the way and let the Muslims kill each other.

    When they are done. Destroy anything that jeopardizes US interests. And that includes an Iranian nuke.

    The non-Muslim world needs to quit to PC BS and admit Islam is a killing cult. And we need to create a strategy to disassemble this scab on humanity.

  • cartimandua

    Lefties and Muslims didn’t want Pax Americana. No one else is stepping up so enjoy.
    What we must not do is take in refugees. That prolongs conflict.

  • jack

    Ok Andrew, but what is the plan if ISIS defeats the Iranian expeditionary force and mortar rounds begin landing in the green zone? What will we do when the truck suicide bombers begin detonating at every police station in downtown Bagdad ? What do we do when the the Taliban, the Saudi, the Egyptians and the Turkish masses, all simultaneously rise up in support of their Sunni brothers. What will we do when Pakistan attacks Iran with Nukes in order to open a second front in the Sunni-Shia conflict.

  • Grace Ironwood

    Does the West really need a unified country of Iraq ?

    The Kurds are committed to their survival, they are not religious maniacs and of the factions, they appear the most deserving of our help to protect and recognise their territory.

    And do our interests really depend on continued pandering to the lying child, Turkey ?