On February 15, 1991, during a campaign stop in Ohio, President George H.W. Bush called upon “The Iraqi military and the Iraqi people [to] take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein the dictator to step aside.” Saddam did no such, thing of course. Quite the contrary: He turned his guns on his own population as the United States and most other countries did nothing. Saddam’s regime remained a festering sore and a source of instability and terrorism for another 12 years. When I meet with Iraqis—and especially Shi‘a and the Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf—there is nothing but well-deserved scorn for the elder Bush and his coterie of advisors who counseled retreat.
Iraqi Shi‘a would have been natural American allies had the elder Bush not backstabbed them at every opportunity. It is ignorant to associate all Shi‘a as being Iranian Fifth Columnists. Certainly during the Iran-Iraq War it was not the favorite sons of Tikrit who served on the front lines against Iran, but Shia conscripts who may have hated Saddam but remained loyal to Iraq. However, with the abandonment of 1991, Iran had time to organize the Shia and form deadly militias to impose through force of arms what isn’t in the Iraqi Shia hearts and minds.
Against this precedent, events in Syria are becoming increasingly worrying. While Secretary of State Clinton no longer refers to Bashar Assad as the great reformist hope, the international community (with the White House leading from behind) appears ready to quarantine Syria, but not resolve the situation. Bashar Assad could remain in power, even if he cements his role as an international pariah. France, Jordan, Russia and Turkey may not even be so willing to skirt international sanctions, since Syria doesn’t have much oil or really anything the international community wants and needs. Pariahs, however, are not good sources of stability. At the same time, while we might contain, other countries may not: Our detachment from Syria simply allows Iran to organize from the ashes of whatever and whomever Assad leaves behind.