Between September 1980 and August 1988 Iraq fought the longest conventional war in twentieth century history. The struggle was against Iran, a nation with almost three times Iraq's population and a military that had been trained and supplied for decades by the United States. Despite the fact that the Iranians were animated by religious revolutionary fervor and that a majority of Iraq's population shared the Shi'ite faith of their Iranian enemies, the Iraqi military fought resolutely. The war ended in stalemate.
Given this history, the tenor of American discourse concerning current military affairs in Iraq is infuriating. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter declares that the Iraqis have "no will to fight." Major editorial pages such as that of the New York Times concur with this assessment. Late night wits like Bill Maher wonder why the Iraqis need "Uncle Sugar" to do their fighting for them. What is wrong with all of these people? To believe that Iraq, having fought Iran to a standstill, would need assistance under normal circumstances to redress the threat of ISIS is utterly fantastic.
We are confronted with a stark disparity. In 1980 the Iraqi military fought tenaciously against an army of hundreds of thousands armed with US-made M60 and M47 battle tanks and F-4 and F-5 fighter jets. In 2014 it folded against a force of twenty thousand militants armed with humvees and grenade launchers. Faced with this anomaly, one would expect an educated person to investigate its causes vigorously.
No such inquiry has been forthcoming anywhere in the American commentariat. Everywhere pundits and leaders have defaulted to a common explanation: the Iraqis do not want to fight. They need more training. Their soldiers are unreliable, compelling dependence on sectarian and ethnic militias.
The absurdity of this view is difficult to exaggerate. To demonstrate this one need only transpose the Iran-Iraq war to the current day. If the Iran-Iraq war had begun in 2014 instead of 1980 it would not have lasted eight days, much less eight years. The Iraqi army of 1980 had 950 combat aircraft, including more than 300 fighter jets. Today it has 12 Soviet-era Su-25 fighters and 13 Russian-made attack helicopters. During the Hussein era Iraq had more than six thousand battle tanks. Today it has 237 tanks, about half of them first- and second- generation Soviet models that are at least 50 years out of date.
Iraq today does not have the military of a sovereign nation. The United States is refusing to allow Iraq to become fully armed, keeping it in a state of quasi-colonial dependence. That is the reason that the Iraqi military can not maintain the peace throughout its territorial domain, and any other explanation is ludicrous.
America has various reasons for constraining the Iraqi military, and though none of them are justifiable in abstract principle, some of them do have a pragmatic rationale. What exactly will transpire in the aftermath of the restoration of full Iraqi sovereignty is impossible to predict. Allowing the Iraqi military to fully arm, for example, might (in the short term) invite a civil war even more destructive than the conflict already raging. Thus the US muddles along with a deplorable and morally indefensible status quo rather than risk an unknown and uncontrollable future.
While the state of US policy might have complex causes, the state of American discourse can be explained much more simply. The universal acceptance of a narrative of Iraqi cowardice and incompetence; the ubiquitous refusal to acknowledge the material reality of American colonialism: these phenomena can have no other explanation but bigotry. Listening to commentator after commentator swallow the story about Iraqi lack of "combat readiness" without pausing to ask how a nation that once had the fifth largest military in the world could fall into such a state of ineptitude, one can only conclude that a pervasive prejudice is at work.
As long as Americans remain so blinkered, we will never be able to make sense of our own foreign policy. Until Iraq is sovereign, it will lurch from crisis to crisis, producing ever more violent and destructive threats. We may fool ourselves that continued paternalism is the most prudent course, but if we allow our policy to be guided by our bigotry, we will learn that the trouble colonialism invites ultimately vastly surpasses any it might forestall.