This editorial appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday:
One question that should be high on the foreign policy agenda of President-elect Donald Trump is whether America should continue the war in Iraq, which now risks having ensnared three U.S. presidents.
The Iraq War has now cost the taxpayers $2 trillion. Nearly 4,500 Americans have died, the conflict arguably spawned the Islamic State and some 5,000 American troops are still engaged there. Iraq’s predominantly Shiite government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, still has not gained the support or even the acquiescence of Iraq’s mixed population. It was formerly constituted, under Saddam Hussein, of roughly 20 percent Sunni Arab Muslims, on top of the heap, 17 percent Kurds, also Sunnis, and 60 percent Shiites.
The invasion in 2003 and subsequent occupation put Shiites on top, in principle based on Western democracy’s one-person, one-vote formula, but the Sunnis have never accepted the new order and continue to struggle against it; some back the mostly Sunni Islamic State.
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Deadly bombs go off in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country, almost certainly directed by Sunnis against the ruling Shiites. The Islamic State has held Mosul, Iraq’s second city, since June 2014. An offensive led, in principle, by Abadi government forces to take back Mosul — accompanied by an odd collection of Iranian-backed Shiite militias, Kurds and U.S. troops — has been underway for three months.
The Mosul offensive was originally billed as a military cakewalk, but has turned out to be tough sledding. On Friday the taking by government forces of part of the eastern part of Mosul, a city divided into east and west sections, was portrayed as a significant victory for the government side. Subsequent victory in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the nominal capital of the Islamic State, was portrayed months ago as an easy follow-on battle to win for the U.S.-supported side after Mosul.
The question now is whether the incoming Trump administration will continue to keep the United States on the hook in Iraq. President George W. Bush tried to withdraw from the conflict starting in 2008. President Barack Obama, in spite of passionate promises, was unable to resist Iraqi government and domestic pressure, including by military leaders still in quest of redefined victory, to keep forces and assets committed. U.S. involvement is now coming up to 14 years, way out of proportion to the importance of the country to the United States, or to anybody but Iraqis themselves.
If Trump looks at Iraq as an investment of U.S. assets, including military personnel as well as money, he could sensibly conclude that enough is already far more than enough and pull forces and other assets out, leaving the Iraqis to sort out their situation themselves. As a U.S. investment, Iraq now looks a lot more like today’s Atlantic City than like another California gold rush.