History as Farce: From Napoleon to Maliki


Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s Military History in the News.

In describing France’s descent from the great Napoleon Bonaparte to his nephew, who had overthrown the Second Republic and replaced it with a totted up empire, Karl Marx commented that history repeats itself “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” The disaster of 9/11 and the following five years, reflected a tragedy in the sense that American hubris and arrogance failed to understand the threat and then casually invaded Iraq with no understanding of Mesopotamia’s culture, history, the nature of its people, or even the fact that U.S. forces were confronting a swelling insurgency among both the Sunni and Shi’a populations. The result was a humiliating quagmire for the United States with thousands of American servicemen killed and over a hundred thousand Iraqi civilian deaths.

Confronted with a nightmarish situation, President George W. Bush instituted a major surge of American forces into Iraq against the advice of virtually all his advisers and certainly all of the major liberal pundits. Accompanying the surge of U.S. forces into Iraq was a thorough reappraisal of coalition tactics and operations that turned the war around. The American success came at considerable cost, but one that provided some hope for the future of that troubled region.

Unfortunately, all the prospects for a stable Iraq disappeared with the replacement of the tired Bush team. President Obama’s only desire was to exit Iraq as fast as the United States could do so. As ignorant of the history, culture, and politics of the Middle East as their predecessors had been, the president’s new team disregarded entirely the results of the Iraqi election and kept in power Nouri al-Maliki. Equally disastrous was the refusal of the new administration to agree to a status of forces agreement that would have allowed American advisors to monitor the training and use of Iraq’s military forces. The result, not surprisingly, was that al-Maliki quite simply wrecked the Iraqi military by removing nearly all of the competent senior officers and replacing them with political hacks loyal to his regime, destroyed all of the trust that the surge had built up among the Sunni tribes, and unleashed the Shi’a militia on the Sunnis.

One can at least argue that the Bush administration proved willing to learn from its mistakes. Instead, President Obama has claimed that his administration’s disgraceful exit from Iraq was one of the major foreign policy successes of his administration. Today’s chaotic, murderous situation, in which we see Putin’s Russia emerging as a major power broker in the Middle East suggests a rather different interpretation of Obama’s “success.” Nevertheless, the administration’s response has been vacuous at best and farcical at worst. It has tried, unfortunately with some success, to spin every disastrous foreign policy mistake it has made. The National Review best summed up the sorry nature of the administration’s incapacity to understand the emerging Middle East in Ian Tuttle’s wonderful piece entitled “Lucy and Ethel Take Foggy Bottom.” Undoubtedly the crew running America’s foreign policy expect further successes like the ones it has achieved so far. At least come January 2017 we can expect some change.


Williamson Murray serves as a Minerva Fellow at the Naval War College. A widely published historian and former Air Force officer, Murray was educated at Yale and taught there before moving on to Ohio State University as a military and diplomatic historian. In 1987, he received the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award. He retired from Ohio State in 1995 as a professor emeritus of history.