The Corner

The Gates of Wrath

There has been a furor of sorts in Washington over the revelations in Secretary Bob Gates’s memoir. The secretary leaves few out of his crosshairs, but his comments on President Obama’s distaste for the Iraqi mission, and the consequences for America’s relationship with Iraq, struck me as particularly important.

The failure of the Obama administration to negotiate a follow-on “status of forces agreement” with the Iraqis in 2011 — one that would have permitted the United States to maintain troops in Iraq in a noncombat role — was one of the biggest mistakes of the Obama presidency. It happened not just because President Obama’s impulses about the issue were wrong, but because — in the absence of a strategic framework to guide particular decisions — presidential impulses matter too much in American foreign policy. The fault for that lies not just with this administration but with every administration since the end of the Cold War.

Strategy begins with understanding the ends that are in view. America has a number of vital interests in the Middle East. The United States and the global economy rely on freedom of access through the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf. The region is a center of support for terrorism. Without constant vigilance, terrorists are likely to use the region as a launching point for attacks against the United States or its allies. America has an interest in preventing a direct, existential threat to Israel, if for no other reason than that Israel possesses nuclear weapons which it should not be tempted to use. Finally, as the international nonproliferation regime breaks down, the Middle East is in danger of being caught in a “nuclear cascade.” If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey will be more inclined to develop their own nuclear capabilities. The more countries that go nuclear, the greater the risk of an accidental or impulsive launch, or proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorist groups.

Given this context, the Bush administration should have made clear that the point of the Iraq operation was never to “build a nation” or establish a democracy in Iraq for its own sake. The object of the Iraq mission was, first, to remove Saddam Hussein because he was a threat to the balance of power in the region and because of the perceived danger that he would acquire nuclear weapons in addition to his existing arsenal of other WMD, and second, to create, with the cooperation of the Iraqi people, a democratic government that would be a working partner in stabilizing the region, countering Iranian influence, controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, and assisting in the struggle to defeat or contain terrorism.

America’s armed forces, with strong support from many allies, did the hard part by winning a long and difficult war. The relatively easy part was negotiating an agreement with the new Iraqi government that would have enabled the United States to maintain a military footprint in the country, not in a combat role but as an important symbol of America’s commitment to the region, to cement a partnership with Iraq that would have advanced the vital interests of both countries, and as a foundation for the operation of soft-power tools in the Middle East.

Had that been done, the whole Arab Spring might have taken a different turn. It is much less likely that Iran and Russia would have felt as free to intervene in Syria. Assad might already be gone, the United States would have been much more able to influence Syria in a peaceful direction, al-Qaeda would not be mobilizing in Syria and regaining ground in Iraq, the whole “red line” fiasco would not have happened, the United States would not have to reinforce Jordan now with American troops, and America would be in a stronger position to stop the Iranian nuclear program and preserve an acceptable political equilibrium in the Middle East. Those are just the primary benefits that America might well have enjoyed from nurturing a de facto alliance with Iraq; there would have been a number of secondary benefits as well.

It was a tremendously important opportunity, with relatively little additional risk, that had the potential of redeeming the sacrifice of American lives and treasure in an operation that was marred by error, particularly in the early stages. The opportunity was fumbled away by the Obama administration. But the root of the problem goes much deeper than the inertia of any one president; it lies in the two-decade failure of the American political establishment to establish — much less explain to the American people — the foundation of a strategic foreign policy in the post–Cold War world and especially in the Middle East. Had President Bush outlined clear war aims in his first term, and set those goals firmly in the context of America’s baseline strategic interests, the momentum of his policy might have influenced the Obama administration to complete the mission.

This is not to exculpate President Obama. For the last five years, he has had the authority, and he must accept the responsibility for what is happening now But in a world of growing danger, it is vital to appreciate the broader point. As I have written countless times, America is more than powerful enough to defend itself and its vital national interests. The American people have proven again and again that they are willing to bear whatever burden is necessary. But power without purpose is largely ineffective, and no democracy will sacrifice very much for very long unless its people understand why their own freedom and safety require it. 

In short, without a strategy there is no policy in the proper sense of the term; there is only a series of choices among bad options in reaction to events that were largely unanticipated. That is too often what American foreign policy amounts to now, not just in the Middle East but around the world.

The Iraq War was an operational success, achieved by the valor of American arms and due in no small part to the tough decisions President Bush and Secretary Gates made in 2007–08. But the bitter truth is that the war was strategically a failure. The cost of the war in lives and money will almost certainly end up far outweighing its benefits to the United States and the world. 

In the absence of strategic clarity, the same thing will occur in Afghanistan when American troops leave after this year, whatever happens on the battlefield between then and now.



Jim Talent, as a former U.S. senator from Missouri, chaired the Seapower Subcommittee and is currently the chairman of the National Leadership Council at the Reagan Institute.