The Persian Gulf War, in 1991, left the U.S. alliance in such a powerful position that dozens of states recognized Israel, and Arab leaders agreed, for the first time since “the three no’s of Khartoum” in 1967, to sit across from Israelis in direct negotiations. The Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” that started in Oslo in 1993 was made possible only by the shift in the regional balance of power in favor of the U.S. and away from the extremists.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a proxy war between Iran’s Shiite extremists and the Sunni extremists of the Gulf Kingdoms, because we had taken down the dominant central power keeping that conflict at bay, namely Saddam. Al-Qaeda fighters from more backward parts of the Arab world streamed into Iraq through Syria and started murdering Shiites mercilessly. And when the reprisals came, all Sunnis were targeted — whether they were al-Qaeda or not, Iraqi or not. The Sunnis of Iraq, who are less prone to extremism than their brothers elsewhere, got caught in the crossfire.
But in 2007 and 2008, the U.S. decisively defeated all the forces that were actually fighting in this proxy war. By 2009, even Obama admitted that the U.S. had achieved a promising situation in Iraq. All the major political factions there overtly backed a long-term alliance with the United States. And the Sunni moderates in particular looked to America with desperate hope. We were the only force that could protect them from both al-Qaeda and the Shiite militias.
In short, we had assumed a role among Iraq’s factions similar to the central mediating role that the U.S. had achieved between Israel and Egypt during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Any peace agreement with the Arabs carries major risks for Israel — that is the essential problem in the Arab–Israeli conflict. It is also what makes the U.S. indispensable to any resolution. Only the U.S. can guarantee Israel’s security sufficiently to underwrite the risks of a peace agreement. Indeed, it is because we succeeded in that very role after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that Egypt and Israel made peace at Camp David — in the United States.
But Obama sees his mission in the Arab–Israeli conflict quite differently. He thinks his role is to be a fair and impartial arbiter. That alone doomed his “peace process” efforts from day one, just as it has doomed our position in Iraq. These are not mere border conflicts, which can be arbitrated well enough by technical experts under U.N. auspices. These are existential conflicts over nationhood. The proper U.S. role is not to arbitrate by being fair, but to mediate by protecting the vulnerable.
Just look at what has happened to the “peace process.” If we can’t convince the Israelis that we will stand by them, they won’t make major concessions for peace. And guess what? That makes us totally irrelevant to the Arab side also. To the Palestinians, Secretary of State John Kerry must have sounded like a pompous fool babbling about nothing. And as anyone could have predicted from the start, his initiatives went nowhere. The humiliation was well deserved, but it was Obama who had condemned Kerry to suffer it, by depriving U.S. diplomacy of leverage.
And just so in Iraq. Influence is a function of power. Commitments have to be backed by real resources. Otherwise, as Walter Lippmann argued, your foreign policy is bankrupt. Once the Iraq War was over, the key task facing the U.S. was to ensure the strength and stability of Iraq’s governing institutions long enough for them to be able to stand on their own. This required above all that the factions see their future in cooperation under a U.S. umbrella rather than conflict fueled by extremism — exactly as with Egypt and Israel in the 1970s.
The continued presence of U.S. forces empowered us to underwrite the risks of reconciliation for those factions, in particular the Sunnis. That’s what made us indispensable mediators. As long as U.S. forces were present, U.S. diplomats had powerful levers with which to continue pushing Iraq’s factions toward compromise. But with our forces gone, our diplomats suddenly can’t convince any Iraqi of anything. And because the conflict is internal, we can’t solve it by arming competing governments, as we did with Israel and Egypt. Our allies within Iraq — those who had fought on our side, and who are that country’s best hopes for the future — were left helpless before the competing forces in the proxy war between Iran and the Gulf Kingdoms.
Though it is often said that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a strategic windfall for Iran, in fact Iran achieved nearly nothing with the considerable effort it expended arming Shiite militias and manufacturing potent IEDs to kill U.S. forces. By 2009, the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq had been utterly defeated and marginalized, and, Maliki’s obsequiousness to Iran aside, even the Shiite political parties backed the U.S. over Iran.
It took Obama to turn the Iraq War into a strategic windfall for Iran. And what a windfall it has been. The alliance of Syria, Russia, and Iran is everywhere in the ascendant. Obama has thrown away not only a priceless strategic position in Iraq, but indeed the dominant U.S. position in the whole Middle East, on which the stability of the region depended — along with any hope for Israeli–Palestinian peace.
The Syrian civil war began in March 2011, with the status-of-forces agreement in Iraq set to expire at the end of the year. Once the fighting started in Syria, it should have been blazingly obvious to everyone in the national-security establishment that unless the U.S. was prepared to intervene in Syria, the civil war had to be decisively contained. The continued presence of U.S. forces in Iraq was already necessary for the future of Iraq. The Syrian civil war made it necessary for the stability of the whole region. For the moment, Israel and Turkey could take care of themselves, but we had to make absolutely sure — at a minimum — that we had enough forces in Jordan and Iraq to protect those countries’ borders with Syria.