Like fellow veterans of the Iraq war, I’ve watched the events of recent weeks with a combination of anger, helplessness, and disillusionment. So many gains reversed and so many lives lost — and for what? The American lives given heroically in Iraq were not in vain, but a legacy is a terrible thing to waste — just ask Vietnam veterans.
The implications of radical Islamists’ capturing large — and significant — swaths of Iraq and threatening Baghdad are so much greater than any soldier, unit, deployment, or decision. Iraq veterans are wringing our hands over events, but we did all we could against long odds — abroad and at home.
After 9/11, the nation was not properly girded for long, difficult, and messy wars. The premise of the Iraq war has always been murky and contested; the post-invasion period was terribly managed; and the military leadership was slow to adapt to a mounting insurgency. The deck was always stacked against us, and we’ve all learned countless hard-won lessons from Iraq — which I’ve written about for years in these pages.
But was the mission in Iraq doomed from the beginning? Of course not. The surge of 2007–2008 answered that question — turning a hopeless situation into a beacon of possibility. Violence was abated, sectarian reconciliation was occurring, and politics was replacing street fighting. The gains of the surge, as General Petraeus said, were “significant, but fragile and reversible.”
In 2009, Iraq had burgeoning oil resources, a growing and increasingly multi-ethnic army, and a functioning political process. It was far from perfect, but the situation was on such strong footing by 2010 that Vice President Biden boldly stated,
I am very optimistic about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the greatest achievements of this administration . . . I’ve been impressed by how they have been deciding to use the political process rather than guns to settle their differences.
While the gains in Iraq were indeed impressive, Biden — and the entire Obama administration — was dead wrong for two reasons: First, the accomplishment was never this administration’s. Second, what he called their greatest accomplishment is now their spectacular failure. In the end, President Obama removed the two key ingredients needed for such an achievement: commitment and resolve.
Why? Because they despised our involvement in Iraq. Blinded by ideological hatred for the war, they rushed for the exits on every level, consequences be damned.
As a soldier and a citizen I can handle failure when it is at least grounded in a deeply held desire to secure America and advance freedom. Regardless of how you feel about the war in Iraq before President Obama, the commitment of President George W. Bush to success was unwavering. He ordered the surge in the face of long odds, not because it was expedient, but because it was the right thing to do for American security and interests.
Let’s apply that same litmus test to President Obama. Was he committed to the cause? Did he care? Was he invested in finishing a flawed, difficult, but extremely important war? The clear answer is no. President Obama was subbed onto the geopolitical football field in the fourth quarter with a two-score lead. He sat on the ball — worse, he willfully fumbled repeatedly — and the other team(s) took full advantage. The failure we’re watching today, of Sunni Islamists marching on an Iranian-backed Baghdad regime, started the minute he took the field in January of 2009.
In pinning the war’s failure squarely on President Obama, I’m bracketing everything Obama said and did before he was president. As troops took Baghdad, he bemoaned their efforts from Illinois. As the war deteriorated in 2006, he stoked the flames of pessimism from the Senate. As the surge showed undeniable progress, he cynically denied these successes on the campaign trail (until begrudgingly admitting the obvious). Our troops sowed the seeds of success during and after the surge in spite of the efforts of Barack Obama (and then-senators Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel).
While state senators, U.S. senators, and candidates can whimsically say what they please, presidents cannot. Presidents are entrusted with the defense of our nation, regardless of party affiliation or political considerations. Yet in 2009, President Obama was handed an imperfect — but winnable — game plan in Iraq, at which point he eagerly quit, for all the wrong reasons.
He pulled out troops, regardless of conditions on the ground, because he wanted to claim he’d ended the war. He stopped — literally stopped — meeting or communicating with Iraqi leaders, leaving them to wonder about our commitment to our shared cause. Worse, he ensured a long-term agreement was never signed with a fledgling Iraqi government, finding every excuse possible to get America to zero troops, zero commitment, and zero leverage. The president washed his hands of the Iraq war, thereby washing his hands of all American progress ther.
The president also washed his hands of the Iraqi army and government — specifically Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Many on the left and right are quick to blame Maliki, instead of Obama for Iraq’s disintegration. I’m no Maliki apologist: He’s a paranoid, partisan, and corrupt politician. But you go to war with the prime minister you have, not the prime minister you want.
Maliki, as a previously low-level Shiite leader with little institutional backing or political base, responded to the most fundamental instinct — survival. An Iraq without America endangered his political existence and incentivized retrenchment into sectarian allegiances. With America waving goodbye in the rear-view mirror, Maliki’s next step was to marginalize his Sunni opponents, consolidate power, and develop his allegiances toward Iraq’s neighbor — Iran.
Both sides share the blame for the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) failure, but a disinterested America — holding almost all of the leverage and refusing to negotiate in good faith — shoulders the most. The Obama team’s suggestion that the SOFA failure is Maliki’s fault is like saying that it’s the young quarterback’s fault that the powerful coach switched the game plan at halftime, and then didn’t tell him.
The president just announced we’re sending 300 non-combat special-operations advisers who will training the Iraqi Security Forces but will “not return to combat” (did we mention they won’t be fighting?). While it’s never a good idea to tell your enemies that you won’t fight them, sending advisers is a small step in the right direction — and we should evaluate it fairly and in light of current options. I hope the president does more to prevent an Islamic caliphate between Damascus and Baghdad.
But it did not have to be this way. Signing a SOFA and leaving just a residual force in 2011 — a few thousand troops — alongside sustained intelligence and diplomatic efforts would have completely shifted Maliki’s calculus long enough to fortify and mature the Iraqi political process against an Iranian takeover and created a real buffer against an eroding civil war in Syria (another mess facilitated by this president’s fecklessness).Instead, we’re left contemplating the Iraq that might have been.
Maintaining and advancing hard-fought gains in Iraq required a commander-in-chief with the resolve of George W. Bush. Instead, we elected a campaigner-in-chief who ignored the strategic implications of Iraq and rushed for the exits. The carnage we see in Iraq today is a direct result of this decision and, as we earnestly take stock of future options, we must remember this immediate past.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for American and a Fox News contributor. He is a veteran of the Iraq war and has written about it extensively for National Review Online.