If you are asked, what was biggest mistake of George W. Bush’s presidency, you would probably immediately reply that it was his decision to invade Iraq. I doubt you would get many arguments. One could point to any number of the results of that invasion for justification. However, I’ll bet that you would have to do some thinking to come up with W’s second biggest mistake. A few days ago I would had to do some thinking about that as well, but the recent events in Iraq made the answer very clear to me. I believe it was his decision to implement the de-ba’athification of the Iraqi government and military.
Maybe I need to explain myself. Before the invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party ruled the country with a heavy hand. To hold any job in the government, public sector, or military one had to be a member of the party. Most of the party members were also members of Saddam’s Sunni Moslem sect. After the invasion many of Bush’s most important advisors believed that for Iraqi to be a truly democratic country, it had to be cleansed of the Ba’ath’s party’s influence.
At Bush’s direction, in May of 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority, a division of the US Department of Defense which ruled Iraq for about a year after the invasion, announced its policy of de-Ba’athification. The policy declared that all Iraqi public sector employees who were formally members of the Ba’ath party would be removed form their positions and barred from ever serving again in government positions. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi public servants and military personal were thrown out of their jobs. Even teachers and police who had to join the party to keep their jobs under Saddam became unemployed due to this policy. Over 500,000 people, mostly Sunnis, were suddenly unemployed and feeling disaffected.
Before the invasion, the Iraqi had one of the largest, best equipped, and best trained military forces in the Middle East. It consisted of 375,000 solders organized into to 17 divisions along with between 50,000 to 80,000 elite Republican Guard troops. Of course under Saddam Hussein leadership it was no match for the 200,000 invading troops equipped with the most modern weapons and possessing total air superiority over the skies of Iraq. The actual invasion lasted only from March 19th to May 1st 2003. And by the end of May 2003 the de-Ba’athification policy implemented and the Iraqi military no longer existed. As part of the policy the Iraqi army was totally dissolved. Military personnel from the highest ranking generals to the lowliest foot solders were relived of their positions.
The Coalition Provisional Authority had no choice be to start rebuilding the Iraqi army from scratch without the luxury of reemploying former military personnel. An entire generation of Iraqi military officers, many with years of combat experience, was lost and they were almost impossible to replace.
The de-Ba’athification policy was officially rescinded when the Coalition Provisional Authority handed off control to the Iraqi Interim Government. However, there are strong indications that Shiite Muslim leaders who controlled Interim Government were never persuaded to allow former key Sunni government and military personnel to return to their old positions. The de-Ba’athification policy also remained in practice, if not officially sanctioned, under the elected government of Nouri al-Maliki who served as Prime Minister from 2006 to 2014.
Many Iraqi experts point to the lack of participation of Shiites in government and military positions under Sunni government rule as one of the chief reasons for the conflict and unrest in the country which keep the US military forces in Iraqi occupied until they left the country in 2011. In fact, at one point during the famous “surge” in 2007, over 170,000 American military troops were required in country to put down Sunni lead insurgencies.
Skipping forward to recent events, a relatively small group of ISIS jihadists, numbering perhaps 20,000 men, was able to occupy large swaths of Iraqi territory despite the resistance, or more accurately the lack of resistance, of Iraqi army. The Iraqi army, with its current force of 270,000 troops, outnumbers ISIS over 13 to 1. However, in many cases when confronted with small groups of ISIS fighters on the battlefield, much larger units of Iraqi regulars threw down the weapons and ran.
American intelligence agencies were caught off guard, not by the strength of ISIS, but by lack of ability of the Iraqi military to counter such a small threat. Perhaps they should not have been surprised by the weakness of the Iraqi military or by the strategic and tactical superiority of the ISIS leadership during the first stages of the conflict. It takes many years to develop combat leadership skills in senior military officers and non commissioned officers. The Iraqi military lost all of its senior officers and NCO’s only twelve years ago. On the hand, the senior ISIS military planners and leaders are disaffected former senior officers who ran Iraqi’s under Saddam Hussein.
The policy of de-Ba’athification implemented by the Bush Administration immediately after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, followed by the exclusion under Maliki’s government of Sunnis from government service jobs and the military have long been major causes of conflict and unrest in Iraqi since the invasion. Now in large part because of these same policies, the entire Iraqi government is threatened and very large segments of the country remain in ISIS hands.
I think that it is easy to say that the current Iraqi situation is in large part due to both of George W. Bush’s two biggest mistakes – the first being deciding to invade Iraq in the first place and the second being the implementation of a policy of de-Ba’athification right after the invasion came to an end.