President Barack Obama came to office promising to “bring a responsible end to the war in Iraq.” That should have been easy enough to do, considering the war was already over. Alas, he seems to have had in mind something quite different than “ending a war.” Perhaps because of his general bias against exertions of American power, Obama seems to have convinced himself that our continuing military presence in post-war Iraq was the same as continuing the war.
This novel conception of when wars end suggests Obama may yet pull our forces out of Europe and the Far East in order to “end” World War II. It also helps to explain how he came to equate “responsibly ending the war in Iraq” with throwing away everything we had gained from it. Obama made it plain from the start that he saw no reason to keep investing in a mistake. He let our military presence in Iraq lapse, and left the Iraqi government to fend for itself when it was still far too fragile. There is a reason we stayed in Germany and Japan and South Korea for decades after the fighting stopped: We didn’t want our sacrifices to be for nothing, and we didn’t want to have to fight again.
Now the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS — the very al-Qaeda forces we defeated in Iraq in 2007 — have come back and taken over huge swaths of the country
, including most of the Sunni heartland to the west and north of Baghdad. Meanwhile, over in next-door Syria, Obama stood by while the rebels fighting Bashar Assad came under the dominance of extreme Islamist forces, and then sold them all out with the chemical-weapons deal in September 2013. Consequently, we have thrown the Iraqi government into a de facto alliance with the murderous Baathist regime in Syria — a feat that not even common enemies and a common ideology could achieve during Saddam’s rule — and now both governments find themselves increasingly dependent on Iran.
With Iran’s power and prestige thus enhanced, and rapidly filling the vacuum left behind by the U.S., the mullahs now see the possibility at long last of extending the Islamic Revolution across the Fertile Crescent. With our impending agreement to let Iran keep its nuclear-weapons programs, we can now settle comfortably into the role of a de facto subordinate ally of Iran, whose forces we may soon be helping with air strikes in Iraq. If you’re wondering where that leaves our actual allies among the Gulf kingdoms and Israel, they are wondering the same thing.
Foreign-policy mistakes are inevitable, and should generally be expected, if not always forgiven. But in its approach to Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, the Obama administration has been criminally negligent. It could be years and maybe decades before we see a situation as good as the one Obama found when he got to office — and things are almost certainly going to get far worse before they get better.
By the time he got to the White House in early 2009, Obama should have realized that the war in Iraq was already over, and that we had won. Exactly two years earlier, the Iraqi security forces were reaching critical mass, simultaneous with the start of America’s own surge, and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province were all coming over to the U.S. side. By the summer of 2007, when I was embedded in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi forces had utterly defeated al-Qaeda’s Iraqi offshoot, ISIS, in a series of massive joint operations. The following year, the Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki personally orchestrated the offensive that crushed the Iranian-backed militias collected in and around Basra in southern Iraq.