Obama Didn’t Lose Iraq

Responsibility for the Iraq debacle, from start to finish, lies with the Bush administration.
April 1, 2013 • Commentary
This article appeared in the National Interest (Online) on March 29, 2013.

A decade ago President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. U.S. forces quickly triumphed. But that counted for little when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad last weekend seeking Iraqi assistance against Syria’s Bashar Assad. What Washington thinks doesn’t matter much in Baghdad these days.

Most Americans recognize that blame for the Iraq debacle lies with the Bush administration. It was a foolish, unnecessary war followed by a myopic, bungled occupation. No wonder Washington is finding benefits from its policy of being illusive at best.

Yet the leading cheerleaders for the war remain undaunted.

Of course, even they acknowledge that there have been problems. For instance, the Hoover Institution’s Fouad Ajami, a prominent defender of intervention in Iraq, admitted that as U.S. troops came home Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al‐​Maliki “was beginning to erect a dictatorship bent on marginalizing the country’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs and even those among the Shiites who questioned his writ.” Moreover, Ajami cited an Iraqi cabinet minister who observed that “With all the money the U.S. has spent, you can go in Iraq and you can’t find one building or project built by the U.S. government.”

National Review’s editors allowed that Maliki “has ruled as an authoritarian and Shia sectarian and has allied himself with Iran.” Moreover, “the promise of [Iraq’s early] elections, and of Iraq’s new democratic structures, hasn’t been fulfilled.”

The Wall Street Journal editors acknowledged that Maliki “has an authoritarian streak.” Moreover, opined the paper, “the Iraq war is a cautionary tale about the difficulty democracies have in sustaining lengthy military campaigns for any goal short of national survival.”

However, the Bush administration most assuredly was not to blame for such frustrated expectations. Rather, neoconservatives teach that everything is Barack Obama’s fault, including Iraq.

Yes, he came into the conflict late. Yes, he followed the Bush administration’s withdrawal timetable and honored his predecessor’s agreement with the Maliki government. Yes, he implemented the wishes of the majority of Americans.

But so what? He could have kept U.S. forces in Iraq.

Declared the Journal: “President Obama could have capitalized strategically on [Bush’s success] by negotiating a status of forces agreement that anchored the U.S. relationship to Iraq and provided a U.S. military bulwark against Iran.” Added the Journal, the president “could have struck a deal to station 10,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq for the long haul, which would have sealed the kind of partnership Mr. Kerry now wants.”

National Review complained that Barack Obama “had no interest in building on [the Bush record] or even maintaining it. The administration failed to secure an agreement with Iraqis to maintain a U.S. troop presence.”

Ajami charged that “Mr. Obama made the Iraqi government an offer meant to be turned down—a residual American force that could hardly defend itself, let alone provide meaningful protection for the fledgling new order in Baghdad.” Thus, “Iraqi’s rulers decided to go it alone” since “the Iranian supreme leader was next door, the liberal superpower was in retreat.”

Thus we are stuck with an authoritarian premier and, complained the Journal, “an Iraq that is looking out for its own interests, with little concern for how they square with America’s.” Indeed, “Don’t be surprised if someday Iraq is remembered as the war George Bush won and the peace Barack Obama lost.”

Don’t bet on it.

First, the Bush administration, with added clout resulting from full‐​scale occupation and extensive combat operations, failed to win Iraqi acquiescence for a long‐​term U.S. garrison. Washington’s influence was bound to wane as the new Iraqi government regained its sovereignty and took over its security. Putting off negotiations over permanent bases reflected arrogance or incompetence—neither of which speaks well of the Bush administration—or an inability to implement such a policy, which explains the Obama administration’s approach.

Second, the American people wanted out of Iraq. The public was angry about being misled by the war hawks and did not want to forever patrol Mesopotamia. There was no popular support for adding yet another nation to America’s defense dole.

Third, Iraqis wanted U.S. troops to go home. Americans would not have allowed the French military to stick around after they won their independence from Great Britain. With domestic enemies weakened and foreign enemies absent, Iraqis saw little need for a permanent U.S. presence. More radical political factions, like that led by Muqtada al‐​Sadr, were hostile. The more urgently Washington had pressed its case, the more skeptical Iraqis likely would have become. Just what did the United States hope to gain?

Fourth, the Maliki government turned down the Obama administration. The president’s critics assert that he could have reached an agreement, but how? By snapping his fingers? Waving a magic wand?

Retired general Jack Keane recently observed that the 2010 elections in Iraq meant that “you couldn’t get elected” if you supported a continued U.S. presence after 2011—“your opponents would tear you apart for it.”

Ajami claimed that proposing a bigger U.S. troop presence would have appealed to Maliki. Yet nationalist politicians are rarely fans of large foreign garrisons. Moreover, the larger the force, the greater the likely backlash from the Iraqi public. American policymakers might find it hard to believe, but other peoples don’t always desire occupation by Washington.

Finally, winning Iraqi approval for a permanent garrison would not have changed Iraqi domestic and foreign policy. Ironically, Washington’s greatest leverage would come from pulling out the troops, but that threat would not be taken seriously. Permanent bases never gave the United States extra political clout in Europe, Japan, Korea or the Philippines.

Anyway, putative dictators typically care more about staying in power than in satisfying foreign powers. Moreover, they know that Washington long has subordinated concerns over human rights to economic and security interests—as in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Central Asia. Baghdad would not have been any different. It could have counted on receiving little more than a “tut‐​tut” from disapproving U.S. authorities.

Nor would Iraq likely change its foreign policy to suit Washington. Why would the presence of a military garrison—one that the United States wanted to maintain more than Iraq wanted to receive—cause Prime Minister Maliki to promote a revolution next door? Such a development would be against the interest of his nation, his neighbor, his religious sect and his political future.

The neocon argument rests on the assumption that the prime minister is a secret pro‐​American cosmopolitan liberal democrat forced to act like a political authoritarian and Shia nationalist by the Iranian colossus next door. Thus, all Washington has to do is offer a security guarantee to free Maliki to do what he knows in his heart is right.

We’ve seen this movie before. The United States shows up, full of moral fervor and geopolitical certainty. American officials view the locals as primitives and simpletons, malleable clay to be molded by their betters in Washington. The entire country is treated like a picturesque backdrop for the usual Sofa Samurai and Think Tank Warriors to (again) remake the world. Disaster ensues.

Unfortunately, the sequels—and there have been many—rarely turn out any better.

Responsibility for the Iraq debacle, from start to finish, lies with the Bush administration. President George W. Bush launched an unnecessary war. He manipulated the intelligence and minimized the costs to sell the public on his policy. He failed to adequately prepare for the conflict. He mismanaged the ensuing occupation. He failed to cope with the consequences of his cascade of mistakes. Iraq is what it is today because of George W. Bush.

There are many lessons for the American people on the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion. Most important may be holding the architects of the conflict responsible for the consequences of their actions. We must start remembering history rather than endlessly repeating it.

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