This is what happens when a president declares an end to a war that wasn’t truly over.
I remember what Iraq was like in late 2008, when I left. My unit, the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment had largely cleared out one of the last areas of al-Qaeda dominion in Iraq. At high cost we had taken thousands of square kilometers back from enemy control, broken the back of enemy resistance, and given the local population the chance to live something approaching a normal life. Want a measure of our success? When we arrived in November 2007, in Diyala Province (labeled the Islamic Caliphate of Iraq by the al-Qaeda forces in control) every time any convoy rolled out of the gate, it had a greater than 25 percent chance of enemy contact — IEDs, ambushes, or sniper fire. When we left in late September 2008, that chance was down to approximately 1 percent.
Good men died making that progress. Friends and brothers, all of them.
But that’s not to say that al-Qaeda was completely defeated. Even as we prepared to hand over the battle space to an incoming unit, al Qaeda struck one last blow – killing a very dear friend of mine when our troopers cornered a senior leader.
The bottom line was that Iraq was under control, but still in a state of low-intensity war. Iraqi forces, with the help of small groups of American advisers and — in extreme circumstances — American air power, were more than capable of handling large-scale threats from jihadists but weren’t yet capable of stopping all violence (and, indeed, may never have been). The situation was stable, and — here’s the key — sustainable. Yes, to sustain it would have required the continued presence of American troops, and those troops may have sustained occasional additional casualties, but that’s the price we pay to secure hard-won victories.
Look at Korea. Our South Korean ally was so stubborn, so difficult to deal with, that it initially refused the armistice agreement that ended the most brutal phase of the Korean war, requiring America to essentially force compliance. What followed — as an allied Army continued to stare across the DMZ at hundreds of thousands of hostile troops — was a long-term low-intensity conflict that cost at least 98 additional American combat deaths and 814 American non-combat deaths. Violence flared again along the DMZ in the 1960s, including one incident when a North Korean MiG shot down an American electronics warfare aircraft, killing 31 airmen. I’ve served in South Korea, and just a short walk around Seoul demonstrates the value — the humanitarian necessity — of the American sacrifice in that country.
Should we have pulled out of Korea and left what was to become one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies and one of the world’s top economies (with a vibrant Christian community) to be swallowed into the abyss of North Korean totalitarianism? If President Obama had followed President Eisenhower, that’s exactly what he would have done — and proclaimed success even as South Korean cities burned.
But now President Obama — along with Nouri al-Maliki, who bears an enormous share of the blame — has broken Iraq and squandered the immense American sacrifices.
What now? Obviously we cannot return in force on the ground. The American people simply would not abide it. But we’re not helpless and can at least take action to prevent total disaster. I suggest five steps:
1. Provide air support if necessary to protect the Kurds, our most faithful Iraqi allies for more than a generation. If we allow the Kurds to be swallowed up in the fighting, we’ll send a disastrous message to all our close allies that we are utterly faithless — that indeed our friendship is deadly. When I was in Iraq, our brief sojourns into the Kurdish-held area in the north of our battle space was like a short version of R&R, where crumbling infrastructure and constant bomb blasts gave way to paved roads, street lamps, and shopping for fresh lamb skewers in the streets. We cannot allow this haven of civilization and sanity to collapse.
2. Condition any direct military support for the Maliki government on the removal of Iranian forces from the country. The United States Air Force must not become close air support for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, thereby using American air power to turn southern Iraq into a virtual Iranian province. There are reports of thousands of Shiite fighters rallying to defend Baghdad, and it’s possible that they’ll be able to at least stabilize the front. If they can’t — and if they’re Iraqi and not Iranian — we should consider American strikes to keep the capital from falling.
3. Defend our embassy. We cannot present the world with a version of Saigon, 1975. Such an evacuation would be an incalculable blow to American influence and provide jihadists with the exact image that would cause their movement to spread like wildfire. Jihad thrives on victory, and the image of occupying the American embassy would lift the Sunni radicals far more than any victory thus far.
4. Demand an overhaul of the Obama national-security team. That team — including of course Susan Rice and the hapless secretary of defense — is completely out of its depth. Remember, Rice’s previous claim to national-security fame (before Benghazi) was helping the Clinton administration dither while genocide tore Rwanda apart. We have to replace the political hacks with warriors, or the war will come home once again.
5. Educate the American people. This is perhaps the most difficult task. The American people have to understand that the violence sweeping the Middle East has direct implications for our own security. The jihadists fighting each other are doing so only as a prelude to taking on the real enemy — the United States. A “Fortress America” approach can keep out large groups of terrorists, but it doesn’t take large groups to wreak havoc. We have to demonstrate to our citizens that the Obama Doctrine of withdrawal and defeat is the pathway to genocide abroad and violence at home. It may be too late for Iraq, but it’s not too late for Afghanistan. Total withdrawal there will likely yield similar results.
President Obama broke what is not easily fixed, if it can be fixed at all. We are in damage-control mode, facing enormous human cost because the Obama administration chose to believe that it could end a war even as the other side chose to keep fighting. This failure of leadership will cost lives and haunt America for a generation. We cannot let the American people forget.