Obama’s Iraq Debacle

by Rich Lowry

Mario has an excellent piece on the home page on how President Obama’s policy of passivity in Syria and Iraq has created the premise for a catastrophe in Iraq and a broader regional meltdown. He mentions this Dexter Filkins report in The New Yorker, which is worth reading in full. Its account of how we ended up with no troops in Iraq is particularly valuable and worth quoting at length, given the spin of the administration’s supporters that there was no deal to be had to keep a presence there. The story is complicated, but it’s clear the administration had no real interest in staying and trying to preserve the fragile stability we had fought so hard to achieve:

The leaders of all the major Iraqi parties had privately told American commanders that they wanted several thousand military personnel to remain, to train Iraqi forces and to help track down insurgents. The commanders told me that Maliki, too, said that he wanted to keep troops in Iraq. But he argued that the long-standing agreement that gave American soldiers immunity from Iraqi courts was increasingly unpopular; parliament would forbid the troops to stay unless they were subject to local law.

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” Jeffrey told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

The last American combat troops departed Iraq on December 18, 2011. Some U.S. officials believe that Maliki never intended to allow soldiers to remain; in a recent e-mail, he denied ever supporting such a plan, saying, “I am the owner of the idea of withdrawing the U.S. troops.” Many Iraqi and American officials are convinced that even a modest force would have been able to prevent chaos—not by fighting but by providing training, signals intelligence, and a symbolic presence. “If you had a few hundred here, not even a few thousand, they would be coöperating with you, and they would become your partners,” Askari told me. “But, when they left, all of them left. There’s no one to talk to about anything.”

Although the White House denies it, we lost almost all of our influence:

“We used to restrain Maliki all the time,” Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, the deputy commander in Iraq until January, 2011, told me. “If Maliki was getting ready to send tanks to confront the Kurds, we would tell him and his officials, ‘We will physically block you from moving if you try to do that.’ ” Barbero was angry at the White House for not pushing harder for an agreement. “You just had this policy vacuum and this apathy,” he said. “Now we have no leverage in Iraq. Without any troops there, we’re just another group of guys.” There is no longer anyone who can serve as a referee, he said, adding, “Everything that has happened there was not just predictable—we predicted it.”

Indeed, months before the election, American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies. “We thought we were creating a dictator,” one person who signed the memo told me.

Sure enough, as soon as we were gone, the downward spiral began:

Less than twenty-four hours after the last convoy of American fighters left, Maliki’s government ordered the arrest of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab.

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