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We Broke Iraq

Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President Bush that if the United States broke Iraq, it would own it.
Secretary of State Colin Powell warned President Bush that if the United States broke Iraq, it would own it.
Photo by NATO/Getty Images

We broke Iraq. We may not own it, but we bear great responsibility for that tragic, war-torn place.

It’s known as the Pottery Barn Rule — “You break it, you own it” — the aphorism Colin Powell uttered as the Bush administration planned its invasion of Iraq. The secretary of state meant that after the military invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, the United States would “own” all the problems of a fractured and ungovernable country.

Iraq is still fractured and ungovernable — eleven years later — and the United States still “owns” it. No one wants to get bogged down in another military adventure in Iraq, but President Obama had little choice but to order air strikes in northern Iraq, given our past involvement and the looming humanitarian crisis on Mount Sinjar (which appears to have eased) combined with the rapid advance of ISIS, a jihadist militia so extreme that even al-Qaeda is horrified.

As Obama wrestles with his options in Iraq — none good — it’s useful to consult history and remember who gave the world a battered Iraq, who “broke” that country in the first place: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

Bush has maintained silence as Iraq descends into chaos resulting from his ill-advised adventurism. But the never-bashful Cheney continues to offer wrong opinions and faulty advice.

In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Cheney and his daughter, Liz, wrote, “Rarely has a U.S. President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.” It takes incredible gall to write that sentence — given the history of Iraq since 2003 — and not be referring to George W. Bush.

But the Cheneys mean Obama, who they blame for the current Iraqi crisis. “When Mr. Obama and his team came into office in 2009,” they claim, “al-Qaeda in Iraq had been largely defeated, thanks primarily to the heroic efforts of U.S. armed forces during the surge. Mr. Obama had only to negotiate an agreement to leave behind some residual American forces, training and intelligence capabilities to help secure the peace. Instead, he abandoned Iraq and we are watching American defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.”

That is a rewriting of history that would have made a Soviet commissar proud.

Bush and Cheney based their rationale for invading on a tissue of lies. Cheney assured us, “There is no doubt he [Saddam Hussein] now has weapons of mass destruction.” Cheney peddled a CIA-denied story that Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, had visited an Iraqi official in Prague, a thinly veiled attempt to establish a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda as justification for the invasion. Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but he was a secular brutal dictator, and anyone with the scantiest knowledge of radical Islam and Arab politics knows Saddam had no use for the jihadists, who hated him in turn.

Lack of a legitimate reason to invade Iraq did not deter the Bush-Cheney gang. The invasion quickly toppled Saddam’s Sunni dictatorship, which had imposed a tyranny over Iraq’s other major groups, the Shiite minority and the ethnic Kurds (who, though not Arab, are mostly Sunni Muslims). Bush and Cheney (and their neoconservative “experts”) overlooked the seething resentments that Saddam’s brutal rule had suppressed.

The Bush-Cheney occupying force imposed a government on defeated Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki emerged as the leader of supposedly “democratic” Iraq, but instead of ruling as a Jeffersonian Democrat, he inflicted a Shiite sectarian agenda that marginalized the Sunnis and the Kurds. The result is an Iraq that is, at best, effectively split into three self-governing regions which may soon morph into three distinct countries.

In his rewriting of history, Cheney says Obama “had only to negotiate an agreement” with Maliki as the Americans left. The former vice president fails to mention that it was Bush who signed the agreement mandating the departure of all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. He also blames Obama for failing to leave behind “residual American forces,” which ignores Maliki’s refusal to grant the remaining American troops immunity from prosecution. Maliki — eager to consolidate his corrupt and sectarian rule — wanted all Americans gone; without an immunity agreement, Obama could not leave troops in the country.

The errors, deceits, and lies of the Bush-Cheney administration broke Iraq, leaving the rest of us with the responsibility for preventing genocide and utter chaos in that failed state. As Eugene Robinson writes, “The United States has a special responsibility to protect innocent civilians in Iraq — because, ultimately, it was our nation’s irresponsibility that put their lives at risk.”