May 3, 2016
The National Interest
by Paul Pillar

The temporary takeover of the Iraqi parliament building and other facilities in the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr was a demonstration not only of current fractures in Iraqi politics but also of a recurring American misconception about the application of military force on behalf of political objectives. Military force is, as Clausewitz teaches us, a tool to be employed on behalf of political objectives, but the misconceptions begin when faith is placed in the ability of military force to solve problems that are still more political than military. The problems continue with the belief that if such problems are not solved with one level of military force, more force should turn the trick. Such misconceptions have prevailed at least three times in American attitudes toward Iraq.

One time was with the invasion that started the mess that has prevailed in Iraq for the last thirteen years: the grand neoconservative experiment in trying to inject liberal democracy into Iraq through the barrel of a gun. The myopia and misconceptions involved in that decision were so great and the unfavorable outcome so glaring that the general American consensus has since then become that launching the war was a mistake. But parallel misconceptions have persisted regarding two later chapters in the U.S. effort to deal with the ensuing mess.

One of those chapters concerns the “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq a few years later, and the notion that the surge was a success. Of course the insertion of tens of thousands of U.S. troops ought to make at least a temporary difference in the security situation anywhere, but the current political disarray in Baghdad is but one of the demonstrations of how the surge failed in its main objective, which was to create conditions that would lead contending Iraqi political factions to resolve or at least to manage their differences.

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