On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Iraq war, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are competing over who is best suited to lose it. Obama touts his judgment in opposing the war from the beginning. Clinton brags that she has “the knowledge and confidence to bring our troops home.” In speeches marking the fifth year of the war, both demonstrated just how determinedly out of touch the Democrats have become with Iraq war as it is, as opposed to how they wish it were.
Both promise to withdraw one or two U.S. combat brigades a month, with Obama specifying that at that pace “we can remove all of them in 16 months.” He stipulates that this will not be “a precipitous drawdown.” One trembles to think how he would define such a drawdown, since he is proposing removing the troops as quickly as believes would be logistically possible.
With our departure, Iraq would lose the most responsible and proficient security force in the country, the force that trains the Iraqi army by working with it closely in combat operations and that has put a lid on the civil war, making a return to a kind of normality possible in many parts of Iraq. It would be wonderful if Iraq were stable enough that it wouldn’t backslide with us gone, but no one in Iraq — not the U.S. command, not the Iraqi government — believes this to be the case.
No matter. Clinton and Obama ignore that, just as they ignore the progress that’s been made over the last year. Clinton says President Bush and John McCain “want to keep us tied to another country’s civil war, a war we cannot win.” Clinton seems unaware that we have succeeded in drastically diminishing Iraqi sectarian strife. She says by the summer “we’ll be right back at square one with 130,000 or more troops on the ground in Iraq.” But it’s not square one if those 130,000 troops are in an Iraq where the civil war has been tamped down, U.S. casualties are lower, and al-Qaeda is on the run.
Retailing the standard Democratic rationale for a drawdown, Obama says “fighting a war without end will not force the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future.” This statement needs some unpacking. Obama is not really proposing to end the war, either, because even as we draw down, extremists will continue their attacks. It is only U.S. involvement he wants to end. All of us want Iraqis to take responsibility for their future, but it matters which Iraqis are doing so and how. Without us, the most dangerous armed elements in the country will be more likely take over. Obama apparently doesn’t care who ends up running the country, as long as they are Iraqis.
Obama resorts to the Democrats’ favorite fairy tale in promising that, after we leave, we will have “a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.” He seems to have visions of al-Qaeda bulldozing a runway and stringing up barbed wire around an easily identifiable base. Instead, it infiltrates the population and neighborhoods. For now, American forces are the only ones proficient enough to push it out in counterinsurgency operations.
Hawking her own fantasy, Clinton says she’ll seek “to secure stability within Iraq as we bring our troops home, stability that will be key to a successful withdrawal for our troops.” With what forces will she do this? It’s a war, after all. Clinton says she’ll press the Iraqis to reconcile, but we’re already doing that. Many of the political issues we are pushing the Iraqis on are foundational and will take time to work out. It is more likely to happen — and there are initial signs of the ice breaking in the parliament — if the country is not sinking into a maelstrom of violence.
“Rather than fight a war that does not need to be fought, we need to start fighting the battles that need to be won on the central front in the war against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Obama says. He thus defines away the need to fight al-Qaeda in a strategically crucial country in the Arab heartland. Obama pledges more troops and resources to the fight in Afghanistan, which are needed. But Obama says that only withdrawing from Iraq will allow us to send two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan. This is ridiculous. Since Obama proposes withdrawing one or two combat brigades a month from Iraq, he would have the additional troops in theory in a matter of weeks.
Obama argues essentially that nothing bad would be happening in the world without the Iraq war. North Korea wouldn’t be pursuing nuclear weapons, even though it has been doing so for decades; the Taliban wouldn’t be a determined enemy in Afghanistan, even though it was always clear we’d have a long counterinsurgency fight there; al-Qaeda wouldn’t be in the Pakistani tribal areas, even though those areas have always been ungoverned and the Pakistani government has undertaken operations there in fits and starts unconnected to the Iraq war.
Clinton says the Bush-McCain approach is, “Don’t learn from your mistakes, repeat them.” But with the support of McCain, Bush radically changed course at the end of 2006, dumping General George Casey for General David Petraeus, sending more troops to the theater, and pursuing new tactics. It’s the Democrats who won’t learn from our experience since then, and who promise to make a new mistake in rapid withdrawal, one that would be catastrophic for Iraq and for our national-security interests.