Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Giving It Away

With the drama of the shutdown and the boondoggle of the Obamacare website occupying the news, few Americans are paying attention to events in the Middle East. And the scant attention that is paid to the region is focused on events in Syria, Egypt, and even the possibility of renewed peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Iraq is almost entirely an afterthought these days. As Bret Stephens reports in today’s WSJ, while America turns away, Iraq Tips Toward the Abyss:

Fifty-four Iraqis were killed and another 70 injured Sunday when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a Baghdad cafe. But you probably didn't catch the news.

The tree falls in the forest, the country collapses in the desert, and the question remains the same: Does either of them make a sound if nobody can be bothered to listen? Iraq, where 4,488 Americans recently and bravely gave their lives, and over which Washington obsessed for two decades, has effectively ceased to exist for the purposes of U.S. politics. The show has been canceled; there will be no reruns. Barack Obama's Iraq achievement is that you are now free to think of suicide bombings in Baghdad as you might a mud slide in Pakistan or a cholera outbreak in Haiti: As a bad, but remote, fact.

Except there have been a lot of suicide bombings lately in Iraq. Consider just the past two months:

Aug. 22: Insurgent attacks, including a suicide bomber at a wedding, kill 24 people throughout the country. Aug. 23: A suicide bomber kills 36 people in a park in northern Baghdad.

Sept. 21: Two suicide bombers kill 72 mourners at a Shiite funeral in Baghdad. Sept. 22: A suicide bomber kills 16 and wounds 35 at another Baghdad funeral. Sept. 23: At yet another funeral, two more suicide bombers murder at least 14.

Oct. 5: A suicide bomber kills 66 Shiite pilgrims and injures 80 in Baghdad. Oct. 6: A wave of attacks kill at least 33 people throughout the country, including 12 children at an elementary school. Oct. 7: A wave of bombings hit multiple neighborhoods in Baghdad and kill at least 45. Oct. 17: Another 61 people die in nine car bomb explosions.

Altogether some 7,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed so far this year, approaching levels last seen in 2008. Most of the killing has been done by al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), a group that in 2009 had been so thoroughly beaten by the combination of the U.S. surge and the Sunni Awakening that it barely existed. Now it's back, killing more people than any other al Qaeda franchise, attempting to tip Iraq toward civil war and joining ranks with its jihadist allies in Syria.

At what point does all this start to, you know, worry us?

The great tragedy of the American involvement in Iraq is that we won the hard part. We paid a very high price in the number of troops killed and wounded and whether the effort was worth the cost in blood and treasure is open to debate. But following the surge in 2007, the results on the ground were hard to dispute. The forces of Al Qaeda had been defeated and other insurgents had either been coopted or had decided that they could achieve through means through other ends. There was a real possibility of Iraq becoming an increasingly stable and secure country in the volatile region. While American support and assistance would still be required it would be on a much less significant scale.

Among the many foreign policy failures of the Obama Administration, the inability to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government on a continued American presence is almost forgotten. Yet that failure and the resulting precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Iraq may be the most damaging foreign policy defeat suffered during President Obama’s two terms (so far). The worst part is that that this defeat was almost entirely self-inflicted and was easily avoidable. To suffer so much to win the war and then to do so little to secure the peace is indeed a tragedy. One that few Americans even recognize.