U.S. Sidelined as Iraq Becomes Bloodier

The 2003 invasion helped sow the seeds for an incipient civil war.

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The U.S. invaded Iraq 3,802 days — and 4,486 American lives — ago. As Iraq moves ever closer to civil war — 1,057 died there last month, the highest toll in five years, with more than 100 perishing in nationwide bombings since last weekend — the U.S. basically can do little to quell the violence its invasion a decade ago helped make possible.

The U.S. government said the weekend attacks were likely the work of al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch, exploiting ancient tensions between Islam’s Sunni and Shi‘ite sects. Once again, it announced the existence of a $10 million bounty for information leading to the killing or capture of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Sunni leader of the local al-Qaeda franchise.

For sure, there will be diplomacy. “We have close counterterrorism cooperation with the Iraqi government,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Tuesday. But because of its enforced sidelining, the U.S. can do little to actually try to end the violence. Then Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2008 that he expected to see “several tens of thousands of American troops” in Iraq in 2012 and beyond to train Iraqi troops and combat terrorism. But the inability of the U.S. and Iraq to reach a deal regarding legal protections for U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011 led to their departure.

(MORE: Iraq’s Sectarian Violence: Bombings Plunge Country Into Deadly Spiral)

American standoffishness makes sense for two reasons: that inability to strike a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government for a continuing U.S. troop presence inside the country leaves the U.S. government and the Pentagon with scant clout. Just as important, the U.S. and its leaders have even less interest in becoming reinvolved.

If only it were solely their call.

The U.S. tolerated — used might be a better term — Saddam Hussein for years, until his murderous ways bled into Kuwait. That Iraqi overreach led the U.S. to force his troops back home in 1991. Twelve years later — amid rumors that Saddam had it in for the U.S. with (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction — the U.S. invaded Iraq. A new Iraqi government executed him in 2006, and removed the lone strongman apparently able to hold the state together, albeit with torture, executions of his own and chemical weapons used on his own citizens.

In hindsight, the lesson seems to be clear: if you want the U.S. to leave you alone, you can be pretty much as brutal as you want inside your borders. But cross them at your peril. The flip side is true, as well: invaders may find they are grappling with more than they bargained for when — by dint of history, happenstance or ignorance — their foes spread beyond the frontiers of the invaded state.

That’s the fundamental challenge posed by these so-called “nonstate actors” in places like Iraq.

“This is a regional conflict that stretches from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad,” Army General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the Syrian civil war on Monday in Israel. “It is the unleashing of historic ethnic, religious and tribal animosities that will take a great deal of work and a great deal of time to resolve.”

(MORE: What Bush Got Right on Iraq — and What Obama Can Learn From It)

Baghdad? The capital of the nation the U.S. recently fought to liberate? Attacking a single country rived by sectarian battles that spill over its borders can be likened to taking a swat at a hornets’ nest and irritating those inside. Or akin to spreading cancer by operating to excise it.

Even active-duty U.S. military officers who fought there have growing doubts. “During the American occupation in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, as many as 250,000 Iraqis died and 1.4 million were displaced. Nearly 5,000 members of the American military were killed, with many thousands more suffering life-altering wounds, both physical and mental,” Army Colonel Gian Gentile wrote on Tuesday in the Los Angeles Times. “By most estimates, the United States has spent about $3 trillion on its nation-building efforts. What has this huge investment of blood and treasure achieved? Iraq is still mired in low-grade civil war, with worrisome indications that it is escalating.”

The U.S. has been down this path, in this country, before. The U.S. used Saddam for its own ends — largely to counter Iran — until Washington believed his megalomania threatened U.S. interests beyond his state.

That was the green light for U.S. involvement. When the U.S. pulled out of Iraq after nearly nine years of occupation, it declared al-Qaeda in Iraq on the run. “Al-Qaeda in Iraq is still operating, although at a much lower level,” President Obama said in December 2011 as the last U.S. troops headed home from Iraq.

Which makes the lead story in Tuesday’s Washington Post — “Al-Qaeda’s Iraq Affiliate Expands Presence in Syria” — all the more chilling. It suggests that the U.S.’s fervent wish to be done with Iraq doesn’t mean that Iraq is done with the U.S.

MORE: Trying to Put Iraq Back Together