Foreign Policy

Iraqi Protests Are Yet Another Reason To End U.S. Intervention

America's exit from Iraq could benefit both Iraqis and Americans.


After months of deadly, large-scale grassroots protests demanding reform in Baghdad, Iraqi, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi announced his intent to resign and the country's parliament approved his resignation. In the protests, about 400 demonstrators, mostly young and unarmed, have been killed by Iraqi security forces; another 8,000 have been injured; and about a dozen security forces have also died in clashes with a violent minority of protesters. Today, it is unsettled who will become the new head of government.

It is unlikely to be a question easily resolved. The demonstrators' complaints are extensive, including state corruption and incompetence, unemployment and economic stagnation, and a perception of foreign influence over domestic politics, notably from Iran. More important than these specific issues, however, is the protesters' overarching critique of the governance structure in Baghdad—a structure shaped by Washington's nation-building efforts after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That dissatisfaction makes this political unrest a fresh and urgent impetus to end American military intervention in Iraq once and for all.

U.S. exit could signal a move toward meaningful reforms the Iraqi people want. It would also be a boon for the American people, bringing closure to a misguided military intervention that has proven costly and counterproductive to U.S. security.

It is commonplace in U.S. politics to hear of the "end" of the Iraq War under former President Obama, but it is an odd end to a war which leaves thousands of occupying troops in place. The Trump administration began this year with more than 5,000 boots on the ground in Iraq, and, since then, added to their number after reshuffling U.S. forces in Syria. It has been nearly three years since Baghdad declared victory over the Islamic State—whose rise occasioned a growing U.S. footprint in Iraq beginning in 2014. In those years, Washington has ignored repeated Iraqi calls for withdrawal of all foreign militaries, as well as recent insistence from Baghdad that American forces relocated from Syria cannot stay.

The demonstrations this fall are further evidence of Iraqi dissatisfaction with prolonged meddling by Washington. "You know, 16 years, there is nothing good," an Iraqi widow named Hala Chalabi, who is part of the protests, told NPR. Her family had high hopes following the ouster of Saddam Hussein but has been bitterly disappointed with the U.S.-backed government that replaced him. "Nothing happened very good for the people. Everything is bad. Killing, stealing—it's about all the government. All of them are bad and the same thing."

Thus the protesters' aim is not merely a new election but a major restructuring of the electoral system established in 2005 under U.S. influence. Indeed, "public sentiment has reached a point where it cannot be placated by piecemeal or cosmetic changes," Fanar al-Haddad, a Middle East expert at the University of Singapore, explained to Al Jazeera. "If all that the political class can offer is a rearranged constellation of the same faces, there will be more public anger and a possible escalation of protests."

U.S. withdrawal would be a step toward reform for the United States as well as Iraq. The 2003 invasion was foreign policy "malpractice," as military historian (and retired Col.) Andrew Bacevich has argued at The New York Times, guided by fantasy and an utter lack of foresight into the predictable aftermath of external regime change. Its price in blood—thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilian deaths—and trillions of U.S. tax dollars remains utterly indefensible. On strategy, pragmatics, procedure, and ethics alike, this war was a misstep from the beginning, and that error is only compounded the longer it is allowed to continue.

A full and expeditious withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq is overdue. Yet it should appeal to President Donald Trump, who has slammed the war in Iraq as the "worst single mistake" in U.S. history and often speaks of his commitment, so far unfulfilled, to ending "endless wars." It would give the Iraqi people needed leeway and responsibility in forging their own political future. And it would be an easy sell to the American public, which has long since soured on this fight. Iraq's present protests provide a valuable opportunity for the U.S. to get out of a war that never should have started. We would be fools not to take it.