Eight years ago this month, Barack Obama explained his warfighting plans to the American people.
I want Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future, and to reach the political accommodation necessary for long-term stability. That’s victory. That’s success. That’s what’s best for Iraq, that’s what’s best for America, and that’s why I will end this war as president. . . . That’s why the second goal of my new strategy will be taking the fight to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Those classic Obama campaign tropes should have warned us of what was to come. For they sum up our president’s worst impulse: arrogant assumptions veiled as incontrovertible assessments of reality. Mr. Obama’s Iraq policy offers the best example. The president’s relinquishing of U.S. influence in Iraq — an approach he presented as “That’s victory. That’s success.” — has been a catastrophe. Opportunities for Iraqi political moderates have perished after years of American neglect, while ferocious sectarians from Iran have filled the vacuum.
Yesterday, however, President Obama backed off from his withdraw-at-all-costs foreign policy and reversed plans to reduce U.S. force levels in Afghanistan down to 5,500 troops. Instead, 8,400 service personnel will remain in the country. Yet judging Obama’s late-term reversal in Afghanistan alongside George W. Bush’s late-term surge in Iraq, we gain valuable insight into their national-security decision making.
In January 2007, Iraq was a slaughterhouse. Every day hundreds of Iraqis were being murdered by the suicide bombers of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Iranian-backed Shiite power-drill-torturer death squads. Each week, hundreds of Americans were being killed and wounded. In December 2006, in the highest monthly rate of that year, 112 Americans were killed. But President Bush would not give up. Explaining his surge decision to the nation on January 10, 2007, the president understood the domestic political consensus was firmly in favor of withdrawal. But he was resolute. “Where mistakes have been made,” Bush asserted, “the responsibility rests with me.” Outlining his new strategy, the president declared that it would “require increasing American force levels. So I have committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq. The vast majority of them — five brigades — will be deployed to Baghdad.”
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It was a bold, almost unbelievable gambit in the context of the public’s anger at the disaster and one made in the face of plummeting polls. Bush didn’t care. He knew the stakes. He prophesied ISIS’s rise if America failed. “Radical Islamic extremists would grow in strength and gain new recruits,” Bush said. “They would be in a better position to topple moderate governments, create chaos in the region, and use oil revenues to fund their ambitions. . . . Our enemies would have a safe haven from which to plan and launch attacks on the American people.”
The surge worked. The U.S. Army’s Joint Security Stations in Baghdad reduced violence dramatically, the Anbari tribes joined with U.S. Marines to smash al-Qaeda, and the Shiite militias were introduced to humility. Still, as the combat histories of the surge attest (David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers and Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom are my favorites), these victories were costly. In 2007, 904 Americans died in Iraq — the highest annual casualty figure of any of our 13 long years at war in that country since 2003. Nevertheless, their sacrifices brought about the improvements in Iraqi security that allowed for the multi-sectarian political cooperation that defined Iraq until 2011. Those sacrifices gave physical representation to America’s commitment to Iraq. In turn, that commitment gave U.S. diplomats, military officers, and spies the grudging respect of Iraqi politicians of all stripes. While those politicians continued railing against America in public, they began listening to our advice and cajoling behind closed doors. Our commitment gave us influence in Iraq’s future — a better future. But then, President Obama threw it all away by showing plain disinterest in a status-of-forces agreement that would have allowed American troops to stay in Iraq until the hard-won gains took more permanent root.
#share#On July 6, 2016, in an echo of Bush’s January 2007 change of course, Obama implicitly accepted that his Afghanistan policy has failed. But consider the differences. Most notably, where President Bush spoke in decisive terms and offered decisive action, President Obama offered proud hesitation. Obama took pains to claim that “we are no longer engaged in a major ground war in Afghanistan.” He again signaled his desperation for compromise with the Taliban: “I will say it again — the only way to end this conflict . . . is through a lasting political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. That’s the only way.”
The president has failed to realize that one cannot negotiate with terrorists from a position of overt timidity.
These statements encapsulate Mr. Obama’s utter divorce from military realities. Most analysts recognize that political compromise is necessary in Afghanistan. But Mr. Obama seems oblivious to the fact that the Taliban’s escalating aggression of recent years has flowed alongside his calls for negotiation. In short, the president has failed to realize that one cannot negotiate with terrorists from a position of overt timidity — that approach has only encouraged our enemies to laugh and build more bomb factories. President Obama’s National Security Council might be vast, but it is singularly incapable of making rapid and bold decisions. (The Bin Laden raid was bold, but Mr. Obama took far too long to authorize that action.)
The differences aren’t just in strategic vision. They reach to the tactical level. During the Iraq surge, Bush gave Generals Petraeus and Odierno, the top-ranking American commanders in theater, wide-ranging authority to conduct their operations as they saw fit. His words thus matched his actions. Contrast that with President Obama, who yesterday asserted that his force retention showed America’s “resolve to carry on the mission for which [U.S. forces] gave their last full measure of devotion,” only to, amazingly, just a few prompter paragraphs later, abandon that principle: “The narrow missions assigned to our forces will not change. They remain focused on supporting Afghan forces and going after terrorists.”
The president refuses to allow U.S. forces any greater latitude in killing Taliban fighters. While the rules of engagement were recently relaxed for anti-Taliban targeting, air-strike-approval authority in Afghanistan remains heavily limited. U.S. commanders can approve strikes only in pursuit of specific self-defense or strategic objectives. Unfortunately, in war, complexity equals hesitation. Afghan commanders will continue to have to navigate bureaucratic minefields in order to beg for air strikes that would help them kill our mutual enemy.
#related#But consider a final problem: Even as he decides to keep some forces in Afghanistan, Obama is also withdrawing 1,400 personnel from the current force level. Why? Because rather than listening to Generals Dunford, Votel, and Donaldson, his hand-picked military advisers, and authorizing force levels to best utilize U.S. intelligence, aviation, and command capabilities, Mr. Obama wants to throw a bone to liberal legacy writers.
Ultimately, the contrast between Bush in Iraq and Obama in Afghanistan is one of a leader who made bad mistakes and moved to correct course, and a leader who has always doubled-down on a calculated pursuit of legacy. The historians of 2050 may slam President Bush for invading Iraq, but they will praise him for ordering the surge. Yet whether in Afghanistan or Iran, in China or in Russia, or in many other places across the world, President Obama’s foreign policy will continue to be praised by totalitarians who would burn down all that American-led order has built.