Among the salient and relevant issues in the current presidential campaign is this: Who lost Iraq? Trump and Pence have accused the Obama administration of having surrendered a hard-fought victory (or at least stability) in Iraq. They argue that the administration was more interested in ending a war, even if it meant surrender, than in leaving some troops in place to sustain stability.
Democrats reply that the fault lies with the Bush administration. After all Bush had agreed with the Iraqis that American forces would leave at the end of 2011. So, Obama was really just doing what Bush had agreed to.
James Traub has offered a full analysis in Foreign Policy. Primarily, he faults President Obama, a man who wanted out of Iraq. And who wanted the credit for ending a war. And who might have wanted to turn Iran into a regional hegemon.
Traub is a foreign policy expert, one who aligns himself, by his admission, more closely with President Obama. Thus, we grant special credence to his condemnation of Obama. Similarly, we granted special credence to New York Times columnist Roger Cohen when he blamed the horrors in Syria on the Obama foreign policy team.
Traub begins by noting that Obama had always thought that we should win the war in Afghanistan and should disengage from Iraq:
For Obama in 2008, then a presidential candidate, Afghanistan was the necessary war and Iraq the fiasco draining America’s blood and treasure. When Obama visited Iraq in July of that year, according to Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, the authors of The Endgame, a mammoth account of the Iraq War, he told commanding Gen. David Petraeus that the United States needed to rapidly withdraw its troops from Iraq because “Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror.” Actually, Petraeus rejoined, “Iraq is what al Qaeda says is the central front.” It hadn’t been before, Petraeus explained, but it was now.
Of course, Petraeus knew what he was talking about:
Al Qaeda in Iraq was already the fastest-growing and most profitable unit of the terrorist network, while Osama bin Laden and his crew were largely bottled up in the mountains of Pakistan.
Obama rejected the advice offered by Petraeus. It would not be the first time that he ignored his generals and listened to… we do not know whom.
By the time 2011 rolled around, the issue on the negotiating table was the status of forces agreement between America and Iraq. The Obama administration has argued that since the Iraqis would not protect American troops against legal action, it could not leave any troops in the country.
As a sidelight, Petraeus himself recently noted that we have now sent over 5,000 troops to Iraq… and do not have a status of forces agreement.
In the meantime, Traub explains what was happening in the 2011 status of forces negotiation:
Pence raised the neuralgic subject of the “status of forces agreement,” a compact that the Iraqis refused to sign in 2011, thus compelling the removal of all U.S. troops. Obama officials, as well as neutral observers, have long pointed out that since the Iraqis refused to indemnify American troops against possible legal action, Washington could not agree to a deal. However, according to numerous accounts (including the one in The Endgame), Maliki had agreed to codify such an understanding in an executive agreement, but the Obama administration insisted that he gain the approval of parliament — which Maliki had said he could not do. The Obama administration decided not to take that risk because it did not believe that it needed to keep troops in Iraq. By the time the issue came to a head in the summer of 2011, Obama, facing grave budgetary pressures after three years of recession and a growing military footprint in Afghanistan, was prepared to make do with as few as 3,500 troops.
In truth, Obama did not want an agreement. Or he did not know how to get an agreement. Or he refused to accept the word of Nouri el-Maliki. The fault, as the Republicans have been saying, lies with Obama.
Let us not forget, in December, 2011 Obama addressed the troops at Fort Bragg, NC and declared that the Iraq War was over, that we had won, and that Iraq was a stable democracy that could defend itself. Famous last words… well worth noting.
What advantage would America have gained if we had kept some troops in Iraq?
Yet Derek Chollet — who helped formulate Iraq policy in the Obama State Department, White House, and Defense Department — concedes in his book The Long Game on Obama’s global strategy that even a “small residual force” would have given the administration more insight into the glaring failures of Iraq’s security forces — and perhaps also prevented officials from dismissing the Islamic State as al Qaeda’s “JV team,” as Obama memorably put it.
Apparently, the administration, including Vice President Biden, believed that democracy in Iraq would easily overcome the sectarian conflicts that had bedeviled the nation:
Though concerned by Maliki’s sectarian instincts, Biden assured me that Iraq’s increasingly clamorous politics would force leaders to appeal beyond their own base. “These guys put their pants on one leg at a time,” he said. “They’re still politicians.” But Biden was wrong: With Iran’s unwavering support, Maliki could safely follow his worst impulses. Democracy produced not pluralism but competing forms of ethnic nationalism.
Given his ideology, Obama believed that if American troops were in the Iraq, the nation would be “occupied” by an alien nation and an alien race. Since these occupiers were the source of all the problems in Iraq (and in the world,) withdrawing them would cause peace and harmony to break out.
In Traub’s words:
Obama believed that Iraqis would not become self-reliant unless they no longer had the United States around to broker all their disputes. The fact that he has now sent 4,500 troops into the country is the most vivid evidence of how very wrong that hypothesis turned out to be.
One might ask which presidential candidate wants to re-engage with the world, wants to function as a world leader. If one were to do so, one would draw a blank. Perhaps the most pernicious fallout from the Age of Obama is that both presidential candidates and large parts of the American electorate now believe that we do better to retreat and to cultivate our garden.
At a moment when the American people want to turn their backs on the world, to build walls in order to cultivate their own garden, the president has a strong temptation to convince himself that things will work out well enough on their own or even that an American presence is bound to make things worse. That, broadly, is the stance Obama has adopted in both Iraq and Syria. In fact, the U.S. absence has turned out to be even more toxic than the U.S. presence.