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ISIS, Blackwater, and the Billion-Dollar Boondoggle

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As ISIS, a sectarian Sunni militia so radical that Al Qaeda has disavowed it, pushes towards Baghdad, the situation in Iraq is developing so quickly it may give the impression of appearing ex nihilo. Or, at the very least, the conservative narrative would like us to believe that things had been stable until recently—that the war had been “won” before Obama pulled American troops out and before Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki failed to reckon with both the gathering strength of ISIS and the absurd levels of corruption within his own government.

Senator John McCain said as much during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Friday: “The fact is, we had the war won,” McCain sneered, in his predictably bitter way “The surge had succeeded. And then, the decision was made by the Obama administration to not have a residual force in Iraq.”

Leaving aside the fact that the American public wanted completely out of Iraq, and that most Iraqis wanted us out as well, it’s morally evasive to categorize the recent violence as anything other than American interventionism playing out to its predictably disastrous end.

We didn’t “lose” the war because we didn’t commit enough troops or stay long enough. That kind of reasoning alleviates too much culpability. It’s more accurate to say that, through a series of amoral policy decisions, on both a macro and micro level, we wasted billions of dollars on a boondoggle that destabilized an entire region, promoted a giant sectarian war, and undercut our moral standing on the world stage.

Our failure in Iraq was epic. But to dismiss it as a single stupid misstep, or to pretend there’s one thing we could have done better that would have made it all turn out differently, is the worst sort of evasion by oversimplification. The problem with McCain’s narrative of what went wrong in Iraq isn’t only that it’s self-serving. You’d expect that of any politician. The problem is that it ignores the entire history of our involvement in Iraq.

One reminder of that complex history is currently being buried under the current clamor of sectarian violence. In September 2007, in Baghdad’s Nisour Square, there was an altercation between private security contractors working for Blackwater and armed Iraqi civilians. Fourteen civilians were killed.

The case was originally thrown out in 2009 when prosecutors used sworn statements that had been given under immunity, but it is just now going to trial, as the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has decided to give the Justice Department another shot. The contractors’ lawyers argue that their clients were only acting in self-defense. The prosecution is painting them as out-of-control “cowboys.” Court filings state that the group’s sniper, Nicholas Slatten, had said that he wanted to “kill as many Iraqis as possible for ‘payback for 9/11.’” Whether the Blackwater defendants are found guilty or not, the trial itself is significant. The trial and the actions of ISIS have one thing in common—they are both aspects of the long-reaching impact of our invasion of Iraq.

When we consider our failures in Iraq, we can’t just limit ourselves to the question of whether or not we should have kept our troops in country longer. We have to think about why Abu Ghraib happened. We have to think about why it took so long to get the right kind of armor for our military vehicles, and why we relied so heavily on mercenary companies like Blackwater. We have to consider why we proceeded so vehemently with the de-Baathification process. We have to wonder how twenty-four-year-old Jay Hallen got the job of rebuilding the Iraqi stock exchange, and why the Iraqi Army was completely disbanded after the invasion. We have to wonder why Colin Powell lied to the UN about weapons of mass destruction. Basically, we have to wonder why we invaded at all.

If all of these reminders may seem obvious, they’re not at all obvious to neoconservatives like Frederick Kagan and Bill Kristol, two of the guys who cheered us on to invade in the first place. In a recent editorial they co-authored in The Weekly Standard, they argued that enforcing some kind of stability in the region “would require a willingness to send American forces back to Iraq. It would mean not merely conducting U.S. air strikes, but also accompanying those strikes with special operators, and perhaps regular U.S. military units, on the ground.” (In fact, armed combat troops have already been sent back now, with more on the way.)

There’s a kind of grim humor to another military action being suggested as the solution to the problems caused by a military invasion in the first place. An over-reliance on military force seems to be the cause of, and solution to, all of our problems. In the lead up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002, James Fallows wrote in his celebrated cover story for The Atlantic, “The Fifty First State?”:

It has become a cliché in popular writing about the natural world that small disturbances to complex systems can have unpredictably large effects. The world of nations is perhaps not quite as intricate as the natural world, but it certainly holds the potential for great surprise. Merely itemizing the foreseeable effects of a war with Iraq suggests reverberations that would be felt for decades. If we can judge from past wars, the effects we can’t imagine when the fighting begins will prove to be the ones that matter most.

It was one of the more measured and prophetic criticisms of the invasion at the time.

Today, a well-armed radical militia taking advantage of the swiftly-dissolving border between Syria and Iraq is precisely the kind of unpredictability that Fallows was talking about. So are the Iraqi deaths currently being prosecuted in the Blackwater trial. Rushing into action as a way of resolving the mistakes we’ve made earlier isn’t just dangerously risky; it’s doubling down on the erroneous logic that got us there in the first place.

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