Roger’s Rules

Adventures in the Land of Counterfactuals: What if Bush had listened to Obama on Iraq?

In The Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti has some illuminating reminders about the recent history of our involvement in Iraq, The Surge, and who was saying what when about our best course of action. “In January 2007,” Continetti writes,

with Iraq in flames and Democrats set to take over Congress, President Bush had two options. He could side with Senator Barack Obama and begin a gradual drawdown of American troops in Iraq, leaving the Iraqis to a grim fate and dealing a serious and consequential blow to American interests in the Middle East and beyond. Or he could side with Senator John McCain and change strategies, sending additional troops to Iraq in an effort to secure the population and assist the Iraqis in their fight against al Qaeda and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias–the so-called “surge” policy. This latter option was the one Bush eventually adopted, of course. And for that, he deserves the thanks of Americans, of Iraqis, and indeed the world.

The surge is over. The last of the reinforcements sent to Iraq have returned home. The Iraq those troops leave behind is an utterly transformed place. Since their first offensive operations began in July 2007, overall attacks have been cut by 80 percent. The sectarian bloodshed staining Iraq in 2006 and 2007 has almost entirely abated. American casualties have fallen dramatically, with U.S. combat deaths in Iraq in July 2008 the lowest monthly total since the war began more than five years ago. Al Qaeda in Iraq has been routed, and the global al Qaeda organization faces what CIA director Michael Hayden calls a “near-strategic defeat” in Iraq. Shiite radical Moktada al-Sadr remains “studying” in Iran, while his militia has been cut to pieces by U.S. and Iraqi troops. The Iraqi army is progressing admirably; more than two-thirds of Iraqi combat battalions now take the lead in operations in their areas.

But wait, didn’t Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid loudly repudiate the Surge? Did they not write to scold President Bush, telling him that “As many had foreseen [and who do you suppose those sages were?], the escalation has failed to produce the intended results. The increase in US forces has had little impact in curbing the violence or fostering political reconciliation”? And did not Obama first oppose the Surge and then repeatedly announce that it wasn’t working: “My assessment is that the surge has not worked,”etc. etc. (For a recap of Obama on Iraq see this excellent roundup at Powerline.)

Now suppose the President had listen to Pelosi/Reid/Obama. Suppose he had said, “OK, I give up. You guys win. We’ll pack up and go.” Continetti lays out a plausible result:

Had Bush listened to Obama and decided to retreat last year, not only would the progress we see today not have occurred, but it is quite likely that the situation in Iraq would be much worse than it was at the end of 2006. Bereft of U.S. security, Iraqis would have turned to the nearest sectarian militia for protection from the widening civil war. An empowered and belligerent Iran would have moved to fill the vacuum America left behind, thus allowing the mullahs in Tehran to pursue unchecked their policy of “Lebanonization” in Iraq. And Al Qaeda in Iraq would have continued its barbaric killing spree, using the departing American soldiers as a recruitment tool, evidence of American weakness and unreliability. It would not be al Qaeda but the United States facing a “near strategic defeat” on Osama bin Laden’s chosen front. And a defeated America would have led to a more dangerous world.

Fortunately, none of this came to pass. Bush sided with McCain, who had been calling for additional troops and a counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq since late summer 2003.

In other words, on Iraq McCain offered policies that resulted in a Change We Can Believe In, a “Yes, We Can” attitude, and pointed the way to genuine Progress. And Obama?