In Tuesday night’s debate, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine defended the indefensible — a strategic retreat from Iraq that threw away the fruits of American military victory, helped enable a terrifying genocide, and empowered America’s enemies. Even worse, he did so while spouting a pack of deceptions and half-truths that exhibited a child’s understanding of American strategic interests.
Where to begin? First, it was stunning that Kaine brought up as an accomplishment America’s dramatically reduced overseas deployments — as if the only measure of strategic success is the number of Americans in harm’s way. He said it was a “very, very good thing” that instead of 175,000 deployed, we now have only 15,000.
Well, yes, if America’s enemies were defeated or contained. Instead, American retreat created power vacuums that our enemies filled. Jihadists control more territory, have more men under arms, and are more effectively attacking America and American allies than when Hillary Clinton became secretary of state. Those are facts that make American withdrawal look less like an accomplishment and more like an inexcusable retreat.
Moreover, we didn’t have to maintain 175,000 troops in the field to hold on to our hard-fought gains. Kaine made the choice binary — maximum or minimum. Yet our defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to ISIS) was so comprehensive that the presence of only a small number of American combat troops could have prevented the kind of blitzkrieg we saw in 2014, when ISIS overran large parts of Iraq and Syria. There was never a question of keeping massive numbers of troops in the field. The question was whether we’d keep any troops in Iraq, and the Obama administration said no.
The question was whether we’d keep any troops in Iraq, and the Obama administration said no.
And that brings me to Kaine’s central deception. He still clings to the old, discredited line that America had no choice but to pull troops out of Iraq because the Bush-era “status of forces” agreement mandated their removal. Yet comprehensive reporting in the New York Times and The New Yorker magazine tells a very different story — of an administration that was unwilling to commit the roughly 10,000 to 16,000 (not 175,000) troops needed to maintain stability and of an Iraqi government that was unwilling to risk political capital at home for the sake of a merely nominal American presence. In other words, both sides blundered, badly.
As any number of strategic thinkers have noted, the results weren’t just predictable, they were predicted — by President George W. Bush himself. Speaking in 2007, Bush said that if troops were withdrawn before commanders said Iraq was ready, then:
It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al-Qaeda.
It would mean that we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale.
It would mean we allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan.
It would mean we’d be increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.
All of these things happened. All of them. ISIS has committed genocide. It blitzed through Iraq, threatening Baghdad and even Kurdistan, and it has created a nation-sized jihadist terror state, one that is shrinking only because — yes — American troops have returned.
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The idea that Tim Kaine could look the American people in the eye and declare that any part of this represents anything less than catastrophic failure is astounding. In one of the most important parts of the debate, Mike Pence, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, reminded Americans of the human cost of this disaster — telling the story of Lance Corporal Scott Lubowski, who fell in Fallujah in 2005. He gave his life in a long struggle, a struggle that by 2009 had been largely won. Then Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton squandered that victory.
#related#Those of us who deployed to Iraq remember many more names of fallen brothers, and we also remember the other profound costs in our lives — the physical and psychological wounds, the fear, the lost time with families — that most civilians can’t imagine. Obviously a nation shouldn’t make a strategic mistake simply to honor soldiers’ sacrifices, but when a strategic mistake also undermines those sacrifices, it compounds the injury all the more.
I’m not naïve. I know that Tim Kaine wasn’t going to own Hillary’s failure. I know that he was going to spin — in much the same way that Pence spun or denied Donald Trump’s manifold deficiencies — but neither Clinton nor Obama can be permitted to escape responsibility. They failed, and the human and strategic cost of that failure is staggering. Our soldiers won the war. Our politicians lost a fragile peace. They can’t be permitted to boast about their blunders.