President Barack Obama came to office promising to “bring a responsible end to the war in Iraq.” That should have been easy enough to do, considering the war was already over. Alas, he seems to have had in mind something quite different than “ending a war.” Perhaps because of his general bias against exertions of American power, Obama seems to have convinced himself that our continuing military presence in post-war Iraq was the same as continuing the war.
This novel conception of when wars end suggests Obama may yet pull our forces out of Europe and the Far East in order to “end” World War II. It also helps to explain how he came to equate “responsibly ending the war in Iraq” with throwing away everything we had gained from it. Obama made it plain from the start that he saw no reason to keep investing in a mistake. He let our military presence in Iraq lapse, and left the Iraqi government to fend for itself when it was still far too fragile. There is a reason we stayed in Germany and Japan and South Korea for decades after the fighting stopped: We didn’t want our sacrifices to be for nothing, and we didn’t want to have to fight again.
Now the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIS — the very al-Qaeda forces we defeated in Iraq in 2007 — have come back and taken over huge swaths of the country, including most of the Sunni heartland to the west and north of Baghdad. Meanwhile, over in next-door Syria, Obama stood by while the rebels fighting Bashar Assad came under the dominance of extreme Islamist forces, and then sold them all out with the chemical-weapons deal in September 2013. Consequently, we have thrown the Iraqi government into a de facto alliance with the murderous Baathist regime in Syria — a feat that not even common enemies and a common ideology could achieve during Saddam’s rule — and now both governments find themselves increasingly dependent on Iran.
With Iran’s power and prestige thus enhanced, and rapidly filling the vacuum left behind by the U.S., the mullahs now see the possibility at long last of extending the Islamic Revolution across the Fertile Crescent. With our impending agreement to let Iran keep its nuclear-weapons programs, we can now settle comfortably into the role of a de facto subordinate ally of Iran, whose forces we may soon be helping with air strikes in Iraq. If you’re wondering where that leaves our actual allies among the Gulf kingdoms and Israel, they are wondering the same thing.
Foreign-policy mistakes are inevitable, and should generally be expected, if not always forgiven. But in its approach to Iraq and the Middle East as a whole, the Obama administration has been criminally negligent. It could be years and maybe decades before we see a situation as good as the one Obama found when he got to office — and things are almost certainly going to get far worse before they get better.
By the time he got to the White House in early 2009, Obama should have realized that the war in Iraq was already over, and that we had won. Exactly two years earlier, the Iraqi security forces were reaching critical mass, simultaneous with the start of America’s own surge, and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province were all coming over to the U.S. side. By the summer of 2007, when I was embedded in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi forces had utterly defeated al-Qaeda’s Iraqi offshoot, ISIS, in a series of massive joint operations. The following year, the Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki personally orchestrated the offensive that crushed the Iranian-backed militias collected in and around Basra in southern Iraq.
U.S. casualties in Iraq were close to levels commensurate with peacetime training activities back home, and a tenuous but real peace reigned over the whole country. Obama inherited from the Bush administration the framework agreement for a long-term alliance with Iraq, as well as a status-of-forces agreement that set December 2011 as a tentative withdrawal date for all U.S. forces. Iraqi politics were dominated by a Shiite-led coalition that overtly favored an ongoing alliance with the United States. In the press, Shiite militias accused each other of being under Iranian control.
At that point, the U.S. was exerting an enormously beneficial and calming influence on Iraqi politics. Sunnis who felt abused by the majority Shiite government could appeal to the Americans for help, while Shiites could remonstrate to the Americans about Sunni intransigence. Both could get results — peacefully — through America’s good offices. In a country where no faction trusted any of the others, all factions could trust the Americans to be impartial, for the simple reason that we were impartial. More important, to invoke the title of Bing West’s great book, we were the strongest tribe.
This central position allowed the various factions of Iraqi politics to embrace an alliance with the United States, instead of being forced to seek the protection of coreligionists in Saudi Arabia or Iran whose real agenda was the continuation of a Wahhabi-Iranian proxy war inside Iraq. This is something that Iraqis constantly commented on in their own press, but which Americans by and large never understood: In toppling the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. had opened the door to a proxy war between the Wahhabi extremists of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Arab states and the Shiite extremists of Khomeini’s revolution in Iran. That war proved far bloodier than America’s counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, the purpose of the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq was to defeat both sides in the proxy war, so that our newfound allies in the government of Iraq could cement their power and forge a lasting government.
Hence, America’s continuing military presence allowed U.S. military officers and diplomats to exert enormous influence both within Iraq and in the broader Middle East. It allowed us to keep the peace among Iraqi factions while simultaneously diminishing Iranian and Wahhabi Arab influence. We had gained, at a frightful cost in lives and treasure, a priceless strategic asset, namely the possibility of Iraq as a strong military ally, hosting U.S. forces as long as we needed to keep them there, engaged against the extremists in Syria and Iran, as well as al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their sympathizers among the Arab states. And the prospect of a successful democracy (however rudimentary and corrupt) functioning at the heart of the Middle East gave enormous hope to the pro-democracy movements of the region. In order to consolidate those gains it was absolutely vital for the U.S. to make a long-term commitment and back it up with a long-term military presence.
So what did Obama do? He did what he normally does, which is to counteract what little capacity for action the U.S. national-security establishment retains when left on autopilot. He has visited Iraq only once during his presidency, early in 2009; but even then he only visited troops, and declined to meet with any senior Iraqi officials. He has met with Prime Minister Maliki only twice, once in December 2011 and once in November 2013, by which time the current debacle was well in train. By all accounts, Obama barely lifted a finger to preserve a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, even when — as Dexter Filkins recently reported in a phenomenal feature for The New Yorker — all major Iraqi factions were asking, in private if not in public, for the U.S. to stay.
The tentative end-of-2011 withdrawal date became fixed, and all U.S. forces were gone by the beginning of 2012. What so many Iraqis feared would happen next did not take long to come. The Shiite factions that had rallied to the U.S. side ran for Iranian cover. Sunni tribal leaders who had thrown in their lot with the U.S. were left to fend for themselves in the face of impending and ever more certain assassination. The Iraqi government became more corrupt and authoritarian as Maliki cemented power within his own narrow coalition. The Kurds rested in their mountain redoubt behind their powerful peshmerga militia, as the Sunni heartland once again became fertile ground for ISIS and other Sunni extremists. The country began to descend once again into the Wahhabi-Iranian proxy war that Bush had ended on America’s terms in the final years of his presidency.
Meanwhile, on Syria, Americans quickly agreed, on a broad bipartisan basis, to make the worst of a bad situation. As soon as the rebellion began, there were those, including here at NR, who took the attitude that there were no moderate Sunni rebels in the Syrian resistance, and that we should just let our enemies in Syria (namely everyone) pulverize each other in the hopes they would all lose. In fact, the resistance included plenty of people willing to align themselves with the U.S., namely the very same tribes that had aligned themselves with the U.S. in Iraq.
The civil war in Syria would inevitably threaten the stability of Iraq, and potentially turn into a cataclysmic regional conflict. Hence, opponents of intervention in Syria should have realized that the only alternative to intervening in Syria was to send U.S. forces back into Iraq, in order to seal off the Iraq–Syria border and buttress the Iraqi security forces.
But instead of coopting the Syrian resistance, or — the next best thing — sealing the border between Syria and Iraq, we did nothing. By the start of 2013 we had abandoned both the Sunni resistance in Syria and the Sunni heartland in Iraq to Islamist networks, particularly ISIS. The Syrian civil war’s slide across the border into Iraq rapidly became a reality. Violence increased throughout the year until Maliki came begging for American help in November 2013. But Obama hadn’t done anything to stop the region from sliding back into chaos and there was no point in starting now. Maliki left empty-handed, with little choice but to throw himself at the mercy of the Iranians — and hope for survival in a revival of the Wahhabi-Iranian proxy war.
When Obama got to power, a tenuous peace held in the Middle East, and the U.S. stood at the height of its influence and prestige in the region. Of course, the Middle East is a devilishly tricky place; upheaval is always around the corner; and the U.S. can’t single-handedly control any region. But it should be obvious to anyone who takes an honest look at the events of the last five years that the Obama administration’s whole approach to foreign policy was bound to make the Middle East a much more dangerous place.
Obama’s skepticism of American power apparently blinded him to how vital that power was to the maintenance of peace and stability. Perhaps this discomfort with American power meant the gains of the Iraq war were a burden to him. If so, he couldn’t do anything to reverse the 4,500 lives we lost and $1 trillion we spent to liberate Iraq. But maybe he could make people stop saying the sacrifice had been worth it.
If that was his purpose, then there is at least one area in which his foreign policy is succeeding. As for the rest, behold the Middle East in flames.
— Mario Loyola is former special assistant at the Pentagon and former counsel for foreign and defense policy to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee