Lessons from Iraq’s Green Zone Protests

The neocon-engineered disaster in Iraq continues to unfold with protests now penetrating the super-secure Green Zone, but Official Washington resists obvious lessons, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The temporary takeover of the Iraqi parliament building and other facilities in the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad by followers of Muqtada al-Sadr was a demonstration not only of current fractures in Iraqi politics but also of a recurring American misconception about the application of military force on behalf of political objectives.

Military force is, as Clausewitz teaches us, a tool to be employed on behalf of political objectives, but the misconceptions begin when faith is placed in the ability of military force to solve problems that are still more political than military. The problems continue with the belief that if such problems are not solved with one level of military force, more force should turn the trick. Such misconceptions have prevailed at least three times in American attitudes toward Iraq.

Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr

Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr

One time was with the invasion that started the mess that has prevailed in Iraq for the last 13 years: the grand neoconservative experiment in trying to inject liberal democracy into Iraq through the barrel of a gun.

The myopia and misconceptions involved in that decision were so great and the unfavorable outcome so glaring that the general American consensus has since then become that launching the war was a mistake. But parallel misconceptions have persisted regarding two later chapters in the U.S. effort to deal with the ensuing mess.

One of those chapters concerns the “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq a few years later, and the notion that the surge was a success. Of course the insertion of tens of thousands of U.S. troops ought to make at least a temporary difference in the security situation anywhere, but the current political disarray in Baghdad is but one of the demonstrations of how the surge failed in its main objective, which was to create conditions that would lead contending Iraqi political factions to resolve or at least to manage their differences.

A later chapter about which similar thinking has persisted concerns the notion that the Obama administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by completing a previously scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

This notion has never dealt with the question of how implementing an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration can or should be described in such defeat-snatching terms. Nor has it dealt with the fact that Iraq as of 2011 still had a civil war going that, while less intense than in some previous years, was nowhere near being resolved.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq War.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War.

Most fundamentally, the notion has never explained how U.S. troops could solve internal Iraqi political problems. Were American soldiers supposed to march into Nouri al-Maliki’s office and coerce him into being more inclusive and less authoritarian? What has been at play has been a simple faith that when it comes to U.S. overseas expeditions, where there is a will (an American one, that is, supported by force), there is a way, without worrying much about exactly what that way is.

Portrayals of the latter two episodes have been fueled, of course, by cognitive dissonance on the part of many of those who supported the initial invasion, as well as by domestic political motivations that are part of U.S. rather than Iraqi politics. But there is a larger American habit of thought in play as well. One sees it in some discussions of the confrontation today against ISIS, in Iraq as well as Syria.

Certainly there is a substantial military component involved. But the biggest questions about going after what remains of ISIS in Iraq concern not so much the amount of force required but whether there will be a political basis inside Iraq strong enough both to mount effective military operations and to achieve enough consensus about what happens with recaptured territory so that it doesn’t just lapse back into extremism.

Meanwhile, the Green Zone is an apt symbol of the shortsightedness of some of the American attitudes that have had such a big impact on Iraq. The zone has been a kind of hoped-for safe and stable place, forcefully secured with troops and concrete barriers. A different and much larger reality has existed beyond the barriers. And sooner or later, reality intrudes.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

20 comments for “Lessons from Iraq’s Green Zone Protests

  1. Tristan
    May 5, 2016 at 21:26

    Imagine, for a moment, that the people of the U.S., who are now documented as being very dissatisfied with our government, had organized a protest which aimed to enter the U.S. Congress Building. What would our government’s response have been? I tend to think it would have been an unprecedented armed force, which would have been described as defenders on the ramparts upholding law and order.

    If the protest were to gain a foothold in the door the violence against them would be astounding, all while being described as defending a bastion of peace. The closer the protesters are to the building the greater the violent reaction by the government to drive them off and apprehend them.

    All in line with the current thinking by our oligarchic neocon/neoliberal government which always believes if force isn’t working, use more.

    • LJ
      May 6, 2016 at 15:08

      Nixon would not let Charles Colson ‘get his boys and beat the crap out of John Kerry and the Viet Nam Veterans Against the War’ when they were camped out on the White House lawn in protest of the Viet Nam War Policy of the US Government. An aberration? What was up with that? President Nixon Now More than Eve was the slogan for his re-election campaign which he won in a landslide in 1972 with 60.67%. Reagan , Mr. Popular, only got 58.77 in 1984. Who writes the history that people read nowadays?.

    • Abbybwood
      May 6, 2016 at 23:00

      Recent polling of Americans shows 57% support for Trump’s “America First!” position.

      Watch out “Crooked Hillary”!

      You are going to be convicted in the American court of public opinion after Trump indicts you (should Comey and Lynch refuse to).

  2. R Davis
    May 5, 2016 at 09:53

    “that launching the war was a mistake”

    The sanctions against Iraq began on the 6 th of August 1990 – the sanctions were a near- total financial & trade embargo imposed by the United States Security Council on the Iraqi Republic … millions of Iraqi people starved to death … millions of men women & children died & those few who survived were weak & frail … the sanctions which ended May 2003 left Iraq decimated.

    “the neoconservative experiment of trying to inject liberal democracy into Iraq through the barrel of a gun” … Saddam Hussein was the obedient puppet of the United States … so what happened ?
    Why the war ?
    There was no one left to fight back.
    So what was the sense of it
    Unless the sanctions caused such an unforgivable atrocity that it had to be hidden from the world at all costs.

    • David Hamilton
      May 5, 2016 at 14:28

      What I see all around is people don’t learn any lessons from their mistakes because they don’t admit they make any mistakes in the first place. I see this among individuals who seem to emulate the powers at the top, who do it constantly. So, they keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe, the less-educated can be excused for this, because they haven’t been tested in the rigors of a college education. But the educated powers don’t seem, as a whole, to have been rigorously tested either – where all of one’s mistakes in judgment and ascertainment of fact get exposed.

      From an engineer

      • Erik
        May 5, 2016 at 15:57

        Yes, there is no federal institution that reflects the expert knowledge and analysis of every region and discipline and conducts unbiased debates to resolve the effects of every policy option. As a result the decisions are made by the groupthink of careless thinkers, and there is no institution to hold them accountable for advocating or doing what is generally known to be counterproductive.

        I have proposed a College of Policy Analysis conducted largely by internet to rigorously analyze every region by each discipline and conduct unbiased textual debates, and to resolve the effects of every policy option and determine what policies can really bring public benefit. It is to be designed to protect every viewpoint, including unpopular and “enemy” views that often contain the first doubts about erroneous policies, and the seed of ultimate diplomatic solutions.

        The College must be a large institution with experts at the universities, designed to protect unpopular and even “enemy” ideas, and to rigorously analyze and textually debate policies and viewpoints, with public access and comment upon articles by analysts.

        The results would generally be multiple well-argued positions on each policy alternative, but the facts and general effects would often be broadly agreed. Shaky or counterfactual grounds for interventions would generally be clear.

        This should start as a branch of the Library of Congress and should eventually be an independent branch of federal government. The executive should be legally accountable for actions that any broad consensus of the College shows to be contrary to US or humanitarian interests. Politicians would have much more trouble obscuring and distorting the truth, and could be held accountable for policy ideas thereby discredited. This would have prevented every US misadventure since WWII.

        • David Hamilton
          May 6, 2016 at 16:56

          That is an excellent proposal. Nowadays, “enemy” ideas find the immediate scorn of the opinion makers and are discarded out of hand. It’s terrible. They often do contain the first doubts about erroneous policies, like the Russian radar shoot-down evidence in the MH-17 case. That case develops over time like a Perry Mason case, but nobody’s bothering to follow it around here. The premature distortions take just about everybody off the case. The College would rectify that, put people on the case.

  3. Ol' Hippy
    May 4, 2016 at 17:50

    The best thing the US govt could do is withdraw from the ME, transition away from oil as rapidly as possible, and then work on issues at home instead of “spreading democracy” that nobody wants. We keep wasting valuable resources on pointless wars. The supply has just about been used up, what are we supposed to do then? The world is crumbling while the beltway sips cocktails and finds new ways to fatten pockets of the uber elites. Well they have to breathe and have water too, they are NOT too big to fail; it’l just take a little longer. Wake up and DO something, unless they too think it’s too late, I do.

    • Abbybwood
      May 6, 2016 at 22:51

      I think Hillary Clinton is going to be blind-sided by Donald Trump leading up to the Republican and Democrat soirées in Cleveland and Philly this summer.

      She had better start boning up on the current U.S. debt which is hovering somewhere between $19-23 TRILLION!

      The INTEREST on this debt will be the third highest expenditure next year for the federal government. Forget the principle!!!

      This is the number one reason Yellon has kept the interest rate at 0% or near 0%. If she raises the interest rate the U.S. will be in very deep financial do-do.

      Imagine a typical American family who makes $150k/year and has, aside from the mortgage, car payments, car insurance, health care payments, cell phone, cable and utility payments plus food and clothing, gasoline etc. They also have a credit card monthly bill of $1,000,000. They cannot even come close to paying the interest! Forget the principle! They are drowning in a sea of debt!

      Something’s got to give here folks!

      Whether the family’s debt or the U. S. government’s debt.

      It is ALL freakin’ UNSUSTAINABLE!!!!

      Now. Try getting Rachel Maddow or Chris Hayes or Chris Matthews or Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity or any member of Congress or any presidential candidate (save Donald Trump) to discuss any of this.

      Trump is right to open the discussion about defaulting/re-structuring our debt.

      I hope he crushes Clinton on this.

      It’s time.

  4. LJ
    May 4, 2016 at 14:37

    Muquada al Sadr was the last Sadr standing after his father, brother and scores of others were blown up in a terrorist attack on the triumphant march and parade that marked their return to Iraq after exile in Iran. They are historically the most powerful Shiite Clan in Iraq. You may have heard of Sadr City which is half of Baghdad. You may also remember that when Ayatollah al-Sistani went to England for Heart surgery it was Sadr and his followers who took up’ defense” of the Holy Temple at Najaf which was placed under a US Military siege. You may recall that the US attempted to assassinate al Sadr in the temple combines with a “smart” missile. We injured him, no telling how seriously but mission was hardly accomplished. What you probably do not know is prophecy had predicted an occurrence very similar to this to a defender of the Holy Temple from infidel invaders. We gave al Sadr, who was already one of the most powerful people in Iraq, a super dose of Shia Islamic steroids. He is more powerful now than al-Sistani and there is zero doubt he is the most powerful man in Iraq. He has surprised all with his intelligence and restraint. Really, this could have been predicted but the US still wants to go through with the partition plan. We are messing with things our people cannot seem to understand. The kind of people that we can buy cannot be trusted , are corrupt, are not as strong and cannot command loyalty like the kind that we cannot. See Karzai, Putin, Assad

    • Craig Eckland
      May 5, 2016 at 12:04

      Excellent! I like to hear from people who actually know something.

  5. Chris
    May 4, 2016 at 07:55

    Isn’t the green zone incident being overhyped by our media? Most of the shallow reporting made it sound like the Iraqi govt was on the verge of collapse. The untrustworthy Oliver North, hailed as an expert because of his ‘inside sources’ said this. However, there was one report that this was just a protest against corruption and a call to eliminate barriers in the green zone itself. The protesters later left peacefully on their own accord. I am not taking their side, I am just saying that there is very little in depth reporting on what al-Sadr’s faction actually wanted. Indeed there is very little in depth reporting of any kind.

    For example, what prevents al-Sadr from simply forming a new party and running someone for office? The Shiites are a majority and he is a popular figure. Is there some constitutional provision that prevents this, don’t know, but I do know that I will die of old age before I get an answer from U.S. cable news or our MSM.

  6. alexander
    May 4, 2016 at 05:46

    Dear Mr Pillar,

    Americans were told repeatedly, with great force and conviction, that Iraq was an “imminent threat” to our nation. We were told it was amassing WMD’s and were we not to act, immediately, there would be “mushroom clouds” across America.

    We were also sold the bogus claim it was Saddam’s “Anthrax” that found its way into Tom Brokaw and Senator Leahys’ offices.

    The case to invade Iraq, was based on the absolute certainty it was an impending “existential WMD threat” to the US.

    This claim, as well as the attribution of the “anthrax attack”, to Saddam, proved to be wholly fraudulent.

    To this day, there has been no accountability, for this “fraud” that took us to war.

    Why hasn’t there been ?

    Instead ,the “regime change” narrative functioned as a default substitute once the “WMD”narrative collapsed.

    We had no longer illegally invaded a sovereign nation because it was an “imminent threat”, we had illegally invaded a sovereign nation to “spread democracy.”.

    The question, I have for you, Mr. Pillar, is, if the first “rationale” which was sold to the American people was bogus..how much integrity are you willing to attach to the second “rationale” ?

    How much do any of the parties involved, who insisted(erroneously) there would be “mushroom clouds”over the US, really care about transforming Iraq into a “vibrant” democracy ?

    How much do those who would lie us into such a horrific conflict, really care about “democracy”, at all ?

    How much do they care, Mr Pillar ?

    It seems quite disingenuous, to suggest the American people somehow signed onto “regime change” in Iraq, when in fact we were all “defrauded” into accepting this rationale, once the “imminent threat” rationale, collapsed.

    Had the case for “bringing democracy to Iraq” been made to the American people,at the outset, not the “imminent WMD” threat, we would all have been allowed to weigh some of the key issues in such an undertaking, like:

    Is that legal ?
    How long will it take?
    How much will it cost?
    How many lives will be lost?
    Will it destabilize the region, and lead to a civil war?
    Will the instability created adversely effect the price we pay at the pump ?
    and will we, in the end , be successful ?

    Had Americans known, before hand, the obscene costs to our nation, in treasure, the enormous spike in our gas prices that would ensue, the tens millions of innocent people whose lives would be destroyed, as a result, and the complete instability and upheaval in the region, such a war would precipitate.

    To say we would have wholly rejected the idea….would be a gross understatement.

    Lets not forget that Americans were deceived into a catastrophic war, that proved to be a absolute disaster for US and them..

    Iraq ,today, is a shattered, broken “wreck” ……and the United States of America is over 19 trillion dollars in “debt”.

    • Erik
      May 4, 2016 at 07:42

      It is a good point that reality can creep back into our green zones, but that does not happen in DC, because the mass media and elections are controlled by economic concentrations not present when the Constitution was written.

      If the money spent on US wars of choice since WWII had instead served a policy of humanitarian development, we would have lifted half the world from poverty, and would have no organized enemies. Instead we have killed six million innocents, spent the nation into crushing debt, and made enemies of most of the world. The reason that Dems and Repubs always make war against small nations far away, which only makes things much worse, is that these are not wars of foreign policy, they are wars of US domestic policy.

      Every US war since WWII has sought to create dictatorships of the rich, by preventing or replacing socialist governments. Their intent is to fight socialism in the US, and the foreign wars against distant small countries have been their primary means to domestic power since long before Aristotle warned of this two millennia ago. Only by creating foreign enemies can they pretend to be protectors and accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty. These wars are always sold as security threats, although not a single one has defended real US interests, only those of the rich. They allow the oligarchy to pose as the tough guys who will whip those unwashed masses into order and keep products on the big box shelves, while falsely accusing their moral superiors of subversion and indolence.

      But the advantages the US has enjoyed flow from natural resources, industrialism, geographic isolation, military isolationism, and eighteenth-century egalitarianism, not from militarism or oligarchy. The oligarchy falsely credits its disastrous acts with the wealth of the nation, which it has in fact stolen, corrupted, and destroyed.

      It is the right wing oligarchs who have stolen from government, and have subverted the Constitution by eliminating constitutional rights, controlling the elections and mass media of democracy with money stolen from corporations and government itself. The right wing oligarchy has destroyed democracy in its own name, as they always do. And by corrupting the culture through control of mass media, they have assured an endless supply of fools seeking payment for conformism, afraid of their own kind, and willing to attack their own kind and their group interests.

      • alexander
        May 4, 2016 at 09:26


        I suppose if the American people wish to salvage what is left of our country, or take it back, we need to elect a POTUS, who will put these “criminal” oligarchs where they rightfully belong.

        Federal prison.

        Is there another suggestion you might have that would work better ?

        • Erik
          May 4, 2016 at 09:29

          No, I agree fully. Vote for me. I will put them in prison, and make over thirty other major improvements consistent with the founding principles of the nation.

          • alexander
            May 4, 2016 at 10:02

            That is great you would do over thirty major improvements consistent with our principles.

            But I imagine if you just did the “one thing” ……the American people would elect you President for life.

            For Life !

          • Erik
            May 6, 2016 at 15:04

            I assumed that you jest, as I need no honors or emoluments to serve. But if I were made President for Life against my will for good deeds, I suspect that it would be by means of ending my life, or making me president of a political prison cell. I would decline in any case, but especially the latter.

            Regarding prison for the oligarchy, I do not propose extralegal action or ex post facto law, but only detention in Club Fed Guantanamo and lengthy trials by the FISA secret court established courtesy of themselves, primarily to underline that economic war upon the US via control of elections and mass media will not be tolerated. If the funding sources are demonstrably in the service of foreign powers, then possible prosecution under the 1917 subversion law. If they have supported foreign wars by deception for private ends, causing deaths of the innocent with no likely humanitarian rationale, then send them to the ICC, or perhaps to the victim states if now liberated, for prosecution.

      • Ol' Hippy
        May 4, 2016 at 17:41

        Beautiful analysis of current situation. I’d like to know the end game when the oil runs out and global warming threatens humanity. It is coming, very soon too I believe, and all the resources have been used on pointless, worthless wars.

        • Erik
          May 5, 2016 at 01:36

          Yes, the end games will be ugly, combining the end game of the US oligarchy and that of unsustainable technology etc. But of course if the US chose the rational humanitarian path, all could be mitigated as best possible.

          If there is a means to rational humanitarian policy, it requires ending oligarchic control of mass media and elections, so it cannot rely upon those tools of democracy. US oligarchy appears to be far more entrenched than those toppled internally in 1776, 1789, or even 1917.

          There are means involving marginally constitutional executive action to purge Congress and the Judiciary of those elected or appointed by economic coercion, passing control of mass media to the universities pending legislation of regulated media corporations, holding new elections, and passing amendments to restrict funding of mass media and elections to limited registered individual contributions. But the chance of such an POTUS election is minimal.

          Perhaps our oligarchic foreign policy will ultimately be controlled by external isolation, but that would not restore democracy in the US, which is likely gone forever.

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