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Twenty-five years ago this August, Saddam Hussein’s army rumbled into Kuwait, initiating an era of U.S. military engagement with Iraq that continues to this day. What to do about Iraq has dominated the American foreign-policy debate for a quarter-century, and will again be a central issue in the 2016 presidential election. The chairman of the joint chiefs just visited Iraq to review our military operations and assistance there, and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter just visited the country as well.
Unfortunately, Washington’s emphasis on the military repeats a past mistake: focusing on a strategy defined by troop numbers, targets and what it would take for “us” to win. The headlines hide the real issue: whether Iraq's Shia, Kurds and Sunni Arabs are prepared to share power in a united Iraq, even a decentralized one.
The rise of the Islamic State is the latest chapter in a long struggle for political power in Iraq. So any assertions about what “we” can do must be coupled with a healthy dose of humility. Read more than ever, Iraq's future is in the hands of Iraqis. It is wearisome hubris for America to think that it will decide Iraq's future.
But we can use our leverage more effectively. This requires patience—because while the Washington debate impatiently moves at warp speed, political change in Iraq comes glacially.
There were myriad problems with America's engagement with Iraq after 2003, but none more pernicious than the drive to accelerate Iraqi consensus building and decision making. Indeed, the main reason the United States pushed to keep former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki in his job in 2010 stemmed from impatience.