Colin Powell famously told President George W. Bush before the Iraq invasion, "If you break it, you own it." Well, it's safe to say we broke Iraq.
That's the story I heard last week from two people who live there. I met with the Rev. Canon Andrew White — "The Vicar of Baghdad" — who serves as the chaplain to St. George's Anglican Church in the heart of Baghdad. We were joined by Sarah Ahmed, a director at White's Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East. Ahmed was born and raised in Iraq. White has lived there for 15 years.
"I was in favor of the U.S. invasion," White told me. "But we are literally 5,000 times worse than before. If you look at it, you can see it was wrong. We have gained nothing. Literally nothing. We may have had an evil dictator, but now we have total terrorism. We used to have one Saddam. Now we have thousands."
Ahmed, who opposed the war, agreed but urged people to move past that debate. "When the war happened it was based on wrong decisions," she said. "The U.S. shouldn't have intervened. But that happened. But now it's a different situation."
Now, it's sheer desperation. Speaking to an Anglican church in Washington, D.C., last week, White told congregants, "There is very little hope. There is very little future. I used to say to (my people), 'I'm not going to leave you, so don't you leave me.' Now I can't say, 'Don't leave me.' Because I ... know if they stay, they might not be alive much longer."
In our meeting, White described Iraqis being persecuted, tortured and massacred. Ahmed talked of beheadings and people being sliced in half in front of relatives. She spoke of a slave market where kidnapped children are bought and sold. Boys are forced to become jihadis; girls become sex slaves.
Ahmed's Muslim family fled to Jordan, but she stayed behind because of her commitment to the future of Iraq. She said, "I'm a pacifist, but unless there is a very strong military action by the U.S., (the Islamic State) cannot be moved." She has reluctantly concluded that might have to include some U.S. ground troops returning to Iraq.
This view is shared by a who's who of U.S. military advisers, from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to former Defense secretary Robert Gates. Arguments in favor of sending Americans back to Iraq are the last thing most Americans want to hear.
I opposed the Iraq War, so I can relate to this reticence. But taking the option off the table, as President Obama has done repeatedly, seems premature considering the state of Iraq and America's hand in creating the current crisis.
That said, White is not sure that at this point there is much the U.S. can do to change the dynamics on the ground. He is less optimistic than Ahmed — or some American generals — that Iraq can be saved.
"I really say that the biggest thing responsible for the crisis now was American troops leaving. I could have told (President Obama) this would happen. I sat down with all my staff when the U.S. was withdrawing and I said, 'Give it three years and we will be in hell.' And we are."