Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

How the fall of Ramadi in 2015 began with the fall of Saddam's statue in 2003

ISIS extremists this week captured Ramadi, a Sunni-dominated city that is also Iraq's largest and most important provincial capital. Although some in the Pentagon and White House have tried to downplay its importance, the fall of Ramadi represents a major victory for ISIS and a major setback for those attempting to confront it.

But the most worrisome aspect of Ramadi's fall is not the loss of a major Iraqi city. It is why and how Ramadi fell, and what that portends for the future:

-- Ramadi fell because the Iraqi Army again chose not to fight, pulling thousands of troops out of the city rather than battle the few hundred ISIS irregulars trying to take the city. In the process, they abandoned U.S.-provided weaponry to ISIS as well. If Iraqis will not fight for themselves, it is hard to argue that others should do so for them.

-- Ramadi fell because even those Sunni tribesmen who oppose ISIS and recognize its danger were reluctant to fight it on behalf of an Iraqi government that is dominated by Shiites, whom they also view as enemies. Forced to choose which of two enemies to support, they choose to sit it out.

-- Ramadi fell because the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government is reluctant to arm those Sunni Iraqis who are willing to fight ISIS. They fear that any weapons that it provides the Sunni tribes will in time be turned against Shiites instead, and that distrust is probably justified.

In short, Ramadi fell because the violent struggle that we unleashed a dozen years ago between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq continues unabated, feeding the chaos on which ISIS thrives.  This is the original sin, still playing itself out. This is the consequence of the ignorance demonstrated by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, assuring Congress in 2003, before the invasion, that our occupation of Iraq would go easily because as he put it, the Iraqis have no longstanding ethnic divisions, there's "none of the record in Iraq of ethnic militias fighting one another" that would require "large policing forces to separate those militias.”

We did not know, and if we knew we did not care.

The fall of Ramadi to ISIS is also sad confirmation of the failure of the 2007 "surge". Yes, in strictly military terms, the surge succeeded to the surprise of many, including me. Well-conceived and well-executed by American military leaders, it succeeded in temporarily tamping down the sectarian violence and create space in which Sunni and Shiite could reconcile and come to a political arrangement that would bring peace down the road.

But that reconciliation never occurred. Forced into a truce by U.S. firepower, the two parties did not seek to make peace; they simply retreated to their corners and sulked, each plotting to renew hostilities at the first available chance.

"Only Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people," President Bush said in announcing the surge, and they did not do so then and show no signs of doing so today.

Give Bush credit for this much: Toward the end, having cut himself loose from the dark influence of Dick Cheney and having sought wiser counsel, he had begun to see the true scale of his mistake and where it might lead. It scared him, as it should have. The surge represented his last-ditch, desperate effort to avoid disaster, and he all but acknowledged that fact.

If reconciliation didn't occur, if Shiite and Sunni did not seize this chance to reach an accommodation, "the consequences of failure are clear," Bush warned in announcing the surge.

"Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits. They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. Iran would be emboldened in its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people."

Which pretty much describes the situation as it exists today.

Not surprisingly, Republicans have seized upon the fall of Ramadi as evidence that Obama's policy against ISIS hasn't been effective. They're right: It has not been effective. But the absence of better options is glaring.

Even the most strident, bellicose candidates for the GOP presidential nomination, for example, are not advocating a more forceful approach in anything but the vaguest rhetorical terms. Marco Rubio isn't demanding the direct use of American combat troops in Iraq. Neither is Lindsey Graham. Jeb Bush will only say that as president, "I would take the best advice that you could get from the military," which tells us exactly nothing.

And as a whole, Congress is so divided on the issue that it cannot even pass a simple war-powers resolution that would allow Obama to take the steps -- air strikes, advisers, special forces raids -- that he has already taken to assist in the battle against ISIS.

In his recent comments, Jeb Bush did go on to suggest that the current troubles in Iraq can be traced not to the invasion, but to the withdrawal of U.S. troops. If Obama had kept 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, this wouldn't be happening, Bush claimed.

"ISIS didn't exist when my brother was president," he argued. "Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was president. There were mistakes made in Iraq, for sure, but the surge created a fragile but stable Iraq that the president could've built on and it would've not allowed ISIS."

That description of post-surge Iraq is fantasy. It ignores the fact that President Bush himself tried hard but failed to negotiate a deal to keep U.S. troops in Iraq. We departed Iraq by the deadline that Bush himself had agreed to with Iraqi leaders. It further ignores the hard fact that the surge had failed in its major goal of inspiring a reconciliation between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites, and if they weren't going to travel down the path of reconciliation, they were going to head down the path that leads them right to where they are today.

Even if we had somehow managed to keep 10,000 troops in Iraq (and without making them subject to Iraqi law), I'm not sure what it would have accomplished. Today, we would have 10,000 American troops still caught in the middle trying to keep Sunni and Shiite from killing each other, still dying in IED attacks, still trying as clueless outsiders to use military firepower to suppress a civil war that we do not understand and cannot stop, even if we did play a tragically large role in its ignition.

The idea that we, the United States, are supposed to have a solution to it is wishful thinking by this point. What President Bush said eight years ago remains true today -- "Only Iraqis can end the sectarian violence and secure their people."

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.