The Situation We Face in Iraq: Who Is Responsible, and What Can the U.S. Do?

America has no good options in Iraq. The real possibility that the Maliki government could collapse reflects an epic failure of our foreign policy and will pose a severe national security threat to the United States.


Liberals and leftists put the blame for this dire situation on the administration of George W. Bush and his key officials, especially Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Some conservatives agree, arguing that it was foolish and wrong for the United States ever to have intervened to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But most argue that the truth is that real gains were made in Iraq to create stability and the chance for a representative Iraqi government to emerge, after the military surge put into place by Bush — against the advice of many of his own team — proved effective.

There is truth in all sides. As Daniel Pipes put it, U.S. intentions were over-ambitious, and it was “George W. Bush [who] made the commitment to remake Iraq and … signed the ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ in 2008 that terminated the American military presence in Iraq at the close of 2011. For the Republican Party to progress in foreign policy, it must acknowledge these errors and learn from them, not avoid them by heaping blame on Obama.”

While the Bush administration may have made a call that turned out to cost far too many lives, both Iraqi and American, our intervention was based on false intelligence that was taken to heart by a bipartisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans. While Democrats attack the previous administration for its entry into Iraq, most prefer to forget that they too supported that intervention. At best, like Hillary Clinton, they acknowledge that they did, but say that they long since have publicly stated that they were wrong.


I think Dan Pipes is wrong, however, on one major point. A must-read article is out from the correspondent Dexter Filkins, a man widely acknowledged to be the best reporter and analyst on the region. Writing in the New Yorker blog yesterday, Filkins writes that when the U.S. first went into Iraq in 2003, “they destroyed the Iraqi state — its military, its bureaucracy, its police force, and most everything else that might hold a country together.” After many years of sacrifice, we worked to help the Iraqis reconstitute the state and maintain some stability. The failure of the Obama administration was not to keep a strong residual force in Iraq which would have provided a “crucial stabilizing factor,” training Iraq’s army, providing intelligence against Sunni insurgents, and curbing Maliki’s sectarian impulses. With our departure, Filkins concludes, we removed “the last restraints on Maliki’s sectarian and authoritarian influences.”

Most important, however, is the fact that the surge was successful, as was the military policy pursued by General David Petraeus. Ironically, the city of Mosul, which has now fallen to the Sunni extremist Islamic radicals, was in 2003 won by the classic counterinsurgency tactics initiated by the general. There — as his Wikipedia entry notes — his troops acted to “build security and stability, including conducting targeted kinetic operations and using force judiciously, jump-starting the economy, building local security forces, staging elections for the city council within weeks of their arrival, overseeing a program of public works, reinvigorating the political process, and launching 4,500 reconstruction projects in Iraq.”


These were substantial achievements, all of which have now gone down the drain.

If George W. Bush is to be blamed for the original intervention, Barack Obama shares equal blame for the disastrous nature of the withdrawal he has undertaken. As Filkins puts it, “By 2011, by any reasonable measure, the Americans had made a lot of headway but were not finished with the job.” Barack Obama did not get us into the war in Iraq, and he gained office pledging to get the U.S. out of the engagement. But the U.S. was in, and as a result of his policies, our enemies are emboldened and strengthened. As David Brooks writes today, taking off from Filkins, “the Obama administration took off the training wheels by not seriously negotiating the NATO status of forces agreement that would have maintained some smaller American presence.” The administration expected only minor negative effects from their action. Instead, they ignored all the signs that they were increasing the chances of a full-fledged insurgency led by the most extreme elements among the Sunnis.

Now, as Canon Andrew White, an activist in the Christian community in Iraq, writes on his blog, ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) “has moved into Mosul, which is Nineveh [the main Christian community in Iraq]. It has totally taken control, destroyed all government departments. Allowed all prisoners out of the prisons. Killed countless numbers of people. There are bodies over the streets. The army and police have fled, so many of the military resources have been captured. Tankers, armed vehicles and even helicopters are now in the hands of ISIS.”


Of course, we know that Iraq is not the only foreign policy disaster Obama has contributed to in the Middle East. He did not act four years ago when he might have been able to give aid to moderate elements in Syria opposed to the Assad regime. Instead, Syria became a staging ground where ISIS has been able to prepare its forces for the fight in Iraq, which is now in danger of spreading to Lebanon and Jordan as well. So Brooks agrees with Filkins, and writes:  “By withdrawing too quickly from Iraq, by failing to build upon the surge, the Obama administration has made some similar mistakes made during the early administration of George W. Bush, except in reverse.”

Brooks, I think, is naïve to believe that at this late date, help to Maliki could ease sectarian tensions. The void we left is being filled with Iranian forces.  It is fanciful to believe that Maliki would suddenly accept Iraq’s diversity, and balance his administration with substantial Sunni representation. Nor would he be able now, as his army runs in retreat everywhere, to professionalize the army as Brooks thinks possible. It certainly will never happen given the lack of leadership and vision by the current administration.

No wonder John McCain is mad. He has been attacked in the past as one who supposedly is calling for boots on the ground and never-ending war — the charge levied against him by libertarians and paleo-conservatives and non-interventionists. Speaking today on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, McCain said — echoing the arguments of Filkins and Brooks: “The fact is, we had the conflict won. The surge had succeeded. And then, the decision was made by the Obama administration to not have a residual force in Iraq.” He pointed out that to this day, the U.S. has troops stationed in South Korea, as it did in other areas of Europe after conflicts came to an end, as in Germany and Japan after World War II, and in Bosnia after the Kosovo crisis ended.


McCain thinks Obama should fire his entire National Security Council — made up largely today of political hacks with no foreign policy experience. He noted after a testy exchange with Mika Brzezinski that during the Bush administration, he argued that Bush should have fired Donald Rumsfeld for the policy he oversaw in Iraq at the time. McCain ended his comments by stating: “We’re talking about a residual force to keep a nation stable, and the American people would support such a thing if it was explained to them.”

I’m afraid that without another team of advisers in place, President Barack Obama will continue to stumble, and the threats facing the United States will only increase. Sometimes, it becomes apparent that “leading from behind” is not a policy.


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