The recent capture of Mosul and other northern cities by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is the most recent indicator that Iraq is a dysfunctional state.
At the time of the US invasion in 2003, I predicted one of two outcomes: another dictator would replace Saddam Hussein or Iraq would split into three separate states comprised, respectively of Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites. The inability of Iraq's million strong military and uniformed police forces to defeat ISIS's seven to fifteen thousand fighters underscores that the billions of dollars and thousands of lives that the US invested in training those forces was largely wasted.
In much of Iraq, loyalty to tribe, clan, ethnicity, and religion trumps national identity. The relative calm that the US surge produced in 2007-2008 resulted from the US buying the cooperation of competing factions rather than any fundamental enduring change to Iraq's culture. Iraq's only hope of defeating ISIS depended upon reducing its citizens' conflicting loyalties of its citizens and create a broadly held, firm sense of national will and identity. Positive assessments of what the US achieved during its decade long occupation of Iraq reflect the need of people on the ground and those who sent and funded the mission to believe that their efforts were not in vain. However, events in Iraq following the US withdrawal are the real measure of what US efforts achieved. By that standard, the occupation was a failure.
National boundaries in the Middle East and much of Africa are a legacy of colonialism. European nations, for example, drew the boundaries of Middle Eastern nations following the WWI defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Those boundaries, not surprisingly, reflect the concerns and desires of the European nations that drew the boundaries and not the ethnic, religious, or political realities of the Middle East. Illustratively, significant Kurdish populations live in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Azerbaijan. When colonial empires collapsed and former territories received their independence, the boundaries remained as the Europeans had drawn them with little effort to accommodate demographic and political realities. Those boundaries have largely endured because of dictators ruled through force, ruthlessly imposing their will or restless populations such as Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Bashar al-Assad and his father in Syria, and leaders including Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak in Egypt.
As a military chaplain, I spent much of my time counseling individuals. For me, the most frustrating cases involved individuals who could, if they had chosen, changed their situation without much difficulty or effort. However, these persons frequently preferred to live with the status-quo than to make the requisite effort and to endure the pain of adjusting to a new normal.
Sadly, the same holds for nations: we can point the way, but not coerce change. In the words of the familiar adage, one can lead a horse to water but not force it to drink.
One essential pre-condition of democracy is that a sufficient percent of a people must want democracy badly enough to pay the cost of fighting to establish and then to preserve that democracy. The Arab Spring signaled that across the Middle East, people want to live in a democracy. Time will show whether the Arab Spring is part of the birth pains of new democracies or, as seems more likely (e.g., in Libya and the opposition to Assad), indicative of growing desire for democracy that lacks the strength and momentum to establishing democracy will require. If the latter, then the Arab Spring will end in the emergence of a new set of dictatorial regimes, some of which will veil their repressive policies in Islamist rhetoric. The US, a much-hated nation, cannot unilaterally force the birth of democratic regimes, a lesson that recent failures in nation building in Iraq and Afghanistan should have reinforced.
The collapse of Iraq will adversely impact the world's oil supply and jeopardize the perilous stability in other Middle Eastern nations including Saudi Arabia. This is likely to send the price of oil higher, tighten supplies in global petroleum markets, and put the already slow economic recoveries in Europe, the US, and elsewhere at risk. None of those consequences is attractive. However, the only alternative appears to be once again taking military action in the Middle East, a step that will alienate more Arabs and Muslims, add fuel to Islamist rhetoric and forces, and further destabilize that volatile region. Sometimes the best part of wisdom is to recognize the limits of what one can do and to resist the temptation to act in the absence of constructive options.