Just as George W. Bush’s foreign-policy legacy will be defined by his decision to invade Iraq in 2003, Barack Obama’s is rapidly being defined by his decision to abandon Iraq in 2011. Both decisions are now widely seen as mistaken. But it’s a mistake to ignore the enormous difference between them.
For all the errors in execution, the Bush administration’s decision was taken with tremendous gravity, in response to what it rightly saw as a major strategic dilemma in urgent need of resolution. Obama’s decision, by contrast, was astoundingly frivolous, callous, and reckless.
Even if the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a mistake, that mistake could not be undone by the total withdrawal of U.S. forces. By 2009, it was clear that a withdrawal could not put Saddam Hussein’s regime back in power, nor could it fill the enormous vacuum of power he had left behind. By 2009, a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq had become vitally necessary to the stability of the Middle East, and there was no escaping that fact. Fate, it turns out, had decided to hang Iraq about Obama’s neck like a millstone.
A cruel joke, perhaps, but fate was far less kind to Bush. After eight years of President Bill Clinton’s undisciplined and often short-sighted foreign policy, Bush came to office keen on reviving his father’s high standards of statesmanship. Bush the elder enjoyed one of the best and most unified foreign-policy teams in American history. That was a hard act to follow, but Bush the younger nonetheless managed to put together a foreign-policy team brimming with talent. He made it clear from the start that his administration would implement a long-range strategic vision: The military would be transformed for the 21st century; outdated treaties would be jettisoned; and potential hot spots would be cooled by American power. The pax Americana was to be strengthened and thereby extended.
Then, barely nine months into his first term, al-Qaeda struck the homeland, killing almost 3,000 innocent civilians. That changed everything. Even as the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, the Bush team went to work developing a long-range strategic framework for dealing with the terrible new threat that had revealed itself. Worried that 9/11 might be a harbinger of much worse to come, the administration focused on the confluence of rogue regimes, terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction.
If the administration’s strategy was to reduce that possibility, the test case was Iraq. Of course, Iraq had nothing directly to do with the 9/11 attacks. But Iraq satisfied every element of the new three-part threat matrix. It was the world’s most destructive and criminal regime, with the possible exception of North Korea. It supported a variety of terrorist organizations, and its own intelligence agency (the Muqabarat) was itself a terrorist organization. And Iraq had a history of developing, concealing, and using WMD, and had failed to comply with its WMD-disarmament obligations in any verifiable way.
Much ink has been spilled on the failure of the pre-war intelligence in Iraq. Here the public debate lost touch with reality from the start — as did the administration’s case for war. The WMD dimension of the threat posed by Hussein did not turn on whether he secretly had WMD, but rather on whether the truth could be verified. And if the truth could not be verified, then who should be penalized — the U.S. or Hussein?
In the absence of certain knowledge, given Iraq’s history, we had a right to assume the worst. But the administration instead let the debate focus on what our intelligence was telling us about Iraq’s WMD, in the process accepting a burden of proof that should have been placed squarely on Hussein. This move undoubtedly increased domestic and international support for the war in the short term. But it was the wrong argument, and it exposed the whole effort to the enormous risk that our fragmentary intelligence assessments might be mistaken — as they were later shown to be, when no WMD were found in Iraq.
The administration knew that by invading Iraq, it would only be trading one set of problems for another. Many in the administration shared Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s view, expressed in a 2003 memo to senior staff, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be “a long, hard slog.” In public, the administration often painted a rosier picture — naturally, it was an advocate of its own policy. But the administration knew there were major risks to invading Iraq. And after a deliberate process of interagency coordination, it concluded that the risks of not doing so were greater.
#page#The debate over invading Iraq virtually never acknowledges the problems that America would have continued to face if Saddam Hussein had been allowed to remain in power. With the sanctions regime falling apart and our military presence in Saudi Arabia increasingly untenable, was the strategy of containing Iraq doomed to fail? Would Saddam have increased his support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad against Israel? Would he again have tried to get nuclear weapons, as he had done with the Osirak reactor in the 1980s and with at least two secret uranium-enrichment programs uncovered after the Gulf War? Would ordinary Iraqis have continued to suffer unspeakable crimes, including torture on a horrific scale? Would Iraq have become a safe haven for terrorists? The answer to all of these questions is almost certainly yes.
To be sure, a brilliant military success was undercut by a fair amount of blundering. The administration did not adequately plan for how Iraq would be governed after the fall of Hussein. America’s diplomacy confused the strategic issue by misallocating the burden of proof on the question of Iraq’s WMD, leading to a public-relations debacle when the U.N. Security Council failed to grant a new resolution authorizing force. The occupation was roiled by the unforeseen sectarian conflict between Shiite and Sunni extremists that filled the vacuum after Hussein fell.
Yet for all the flaws, the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was eminently responsible in one crucial sense. Bush decided to absorb massive up-front costs in order to minimize long-term risks. Unlike Clinton and Obama, Bush didn’t kick the can down the road. He started a war to liberate Iraq and the Middle East from their worst tyrant — and he finished it.
By 2009, thousands of Americans had fallen in the Iraq War, but nobody could seriously deny the enormous benefits their sacrifices had brought. Iraq was free of one of the worst tyrants of modern times; Iran had little influence over Iraq’s Shiite majority (even the Shiite militias publicly accused one another of treason for being in league with Iran); and most of the major political parties in Iraq openly supported a long-term alliance with the United States. Braced by a dominant, stabilizing American presence, democratic institutions began to take root, and a tenuous stability held. In 2009, there were substantially more Iraqis who thought their country was on the right track than there were Americans who thought this of their own country.
The difficulty of the Iraq dilemma in 2003 is especially apparent when compared with the utter non-dilemma facing Obama in Iraq in 2011. The virtually unanimous consensus of his senior advisers, including the military and civilian leadership of the Pentagon, was to keep a residual force in Iraq of 10,000 to 20,000 troops, hardly a tenth of the force left behind by Bush. That force would have helped maintain stability, underwrite reconciliation among Iraq’s factions, block Iran’s pernicious influence, contain Syria’s civil war, and secure the gains of our fallen soldiers. But Obama ignored his advisers and precipitately withdrew all American forces, heedless of the many warnings that chaos might ensue.
In truth, Obama has been courting a foreign-policy disaster since the start of his administration. He appointed a flurry of special envoys for every major foreign-policy issue, duplicating and undermining existing military and diplomatic channels. Every major memoir by a foreign-policy figure of the administration (Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Hill) tells the same tale: Obama is disorganized and lacks any strategic sense; he took no interest in Iraq, despite the thousands of Americans who had fallen to save it; major decisions of strategic import were made — or blocked — by political appointees in the White House, and it was never quite clear who the decision-makers were.
Obama continues to claim credit for ending a war that had actually ended — or at least gone dormant — when he was still a U.S. senator. But when pressed on the mistake of withdrawing all U.S. forces, Obama claims that the U.S. was pushed out by Iraq’s refusal to pass a sufficiently ironclad status-of-forces agreement.
Logically at least one of those claims has to be false — but actually both of them are. It was Bush who ended the Iraq War; and, by all accounts, in late 2011, Iraqi leaders were privately begging Obama to stay.
Here’s a question most Americans probably haven’t asked themselves: What did Obama hope to gain by withdrawing from Iraq? We know he gained a major political advantage: In 2012, he ran on having brought a “responsible end” to the war in Iraq. But what strategic benefit, if any, did he hope to gain for the United States? And what was his assessment of the risks he was courting by withdrawing so hastily?
We are left to wonder, as Obama leads the country back into a war he could have avoided, with a strategy that doesn’t make sense to anyone.