In the Middle East, US power remains limited

In the past two months, 1,700 Iraqis died as a result of sectarian violence. The grim statistics are the worst since 2008.

There are bound to be people here who will say we made a mistake in leaving Iraq. The truth is the huge, gigantic mistake was invading Iraq in the first place, for reasons that turned out not to be valid. Iraq had no involvement in 9/11 and no weapons of mass destruction. Saddam Hussein was a murderous despot, but so were dozens of other dictators. After five horrific years, the prediction that “they will welcome us as liberators” was a cruelly ironic memory.

Yet by the time our troops left, progress had been made. Violence was way down. And we had made sure the Sunni minority was represented in the government. Prime Minister Maliki, who was democratically elected, reversed that progress, clearly siding with the Shiite majority and targeting Sunni leaders. The new wave of bombings and murders are the inevitable result.

Soon our troops will leave Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, putting them there in the first place was the right decision, the proper response to a direct threat to our national interest. Within a few months, we had the Taliban and al-Qaida on the ropes. When we shifted our attention to Iraq, we allowed the Taliban to reestablish itself. A war that might have ended in 2004 is still being fought.

When he came into office in 2009, President Obama decided to increase our troop levels in order to buy time to train Afghans. Has that happened? We’ll know in a year or two. I believe there would have been no chance for it to happen had Obama not set a 2014 deadline for our withdrawal. President Karzai told me and other U.S. visitors back in 2010 that he was perfectly happy to let our troops bear the brunt of the fighting, because he believed we were there only for our own interests. He repeatedly criticized U.S. troops for political gain and tried to block our training efforts. Once he was persuaded that Obama’s deadline was real, he became much more invested in building a functioning Afghan army.

What should we have learned from Iraq and Afghanistan? What made them different from other experiences in the Middle East?

I think two recent presidents got it right. President Reagan saw that putting troops into Lebanon was not a vital American interest and pulled them out after the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush correctly assembled a real worldwide coalition, including Muslim countries, in Operation Desert Storm. Iraq had invaded Kuwait and would surely have moved on against Saudi Arabia if we had not become involved, destabilizing the entire Middle East and our sources of oil. As soon as that threat to our vital interests was resolved, and Saddam had been driven out of Kuwait, he ended the war.

The operative words in both cases were “vital American interest.” We had no vital interest at stake when we invaded Iraq in 2003.

We should also have learned by now not to put troops in harm’s way unless and until we have exhausted every other way to deal with the problem. Perhaps the sanctions placed on Iran will not work and military action will be necessary to stop it from developing nuclear weapons. But it is important that the American people and the world at large know we do not go to war except as a last, and just, resort.

Having the backing and cooperation of our major allies and as much of the world community as possible is of paramount importance. The first President Bush had that in his war against Saddam Hussein; the second did not.

Iraq and Afghanistan should have taught us that it is easier to commit ground troops to a war than it is to get them out. Without a clear and agreed-upon exit strategy, we risk what can become endless wars that drain our resources and needlessly risk the lives of young Americans.

Finally, we have to acknowledge the United States cannot dictate its preferred outcomes on other democratically elected governments. We either believe in democracy or we don’t. The majority of Iraqis elected and supports Maliki. We can use every diplomatic and economic lever we have to persuade him that oppressing the Sunni minority is a tragically wrong course. But in the end we must learn to live with the fact that there are limits to American power.

Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. senator from Delaware.