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.