Was Obama wrong to withdraw troops from Iraq?

June 26

Smoke billows from an area controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) between the Iraqi towns of Naojul and Tuz Khurmatu, both located north of the capital Baghdad, on June 26, 2014. (KARIM SAHIBKARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Did President Obama usher in Iraq’s current crisis when he withdrew all U.S. forces and shattered the stability achieved by former president George W. Bush’s “surge”? Foreign policy hawks have vigorously promoted that narrative, but their account does not withstand scrutiny. For one thing, it is now abundantly clear the Iraqi government was not “stable or self-reliant” at the end of 2011. Further, U.S. boots on the ground would not have made it so. Before the troops came home, Americans watched for eight years as the United States failed to resolve Iraq’s internal conflicts. Keeping soldiers there beyond 2011 would not have halted the political hemorrhaging.

The U.S. experience in Iraq – sometimes heartbreaking, often humbling – has echoed the hard-earned lessons of Washington’s prior adventures abroad. In a 2007 World Politics article on “nation-building,” I noted that the United States “has done best where it has done less” and “has been more effective at refurbishing and strengthening an existing state [e.g., Germany and Japan] than at laying a new foundation [e.g., South Vietnam, Haiti].” The second Bush administration aspired to break that trend, attempting to establish an orderly European-style state on the Tigris and Euphrates. Instead, the administration repeated the failures of the past. Radical regime change triggered a traumatic renegotiation of Iraqi politics, one that may take decades to play out.

When Iraq is considered alongside prior cases, it becomes clear that the current crisis dates to the entry of U.S. forces in 2003, not their departure three years ago. The most the United States has accomplished through military interventions in the developing world is to replace or reinforce local leaders, typically in missions that lasted a year or less. By contrast, longer troop commitments and more ambitious schemes of political engineering have tended to end badly. This pattern flips the current controversy on its head. Rather than thinking that U.S. leaders pulled out of Iraq too soon, future generations will likely wonder why they took so long.

Obama’s critics have cited Germany, Japan and South Korea as places where the U.S. military has been “a stabilizing force.” They contend that the lack of a similar residual troop presence (numbering between 20,000 and 30,000) caused the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to grow and the Iraqi army to fold. Such claims merit investigation: Has that hypothetical scenario ever actually happened? In modern history has a country comparable to Iraq overcome internal political divisions thanks to the United States keeping boots on the ground? Of course, to answer these questions it is important to avoid cherry-picking the record for favorable cases. One should examine not only where the U.S. military has kept residual forces for decades, but also where it left completely – after years, or months.

The following table lists 19 U.S. military interventions that involved ground troops since World War II. (Afghanistan and Kosovo are coded as ongoing.) The countries are ordered based on the duration of U.S. military involvement, from shortest to longest. A third column shows whether or not the country was politically stable (free of endemic violence) immediately after U.S. troops withdrew. This coverage, while not intensive, is fairly comprehensive, and even this concise overview offers instructive patterns for Iraq.

Many factors shape the outcomes of U.S. operations abroad, yet duration appears to have little independent effect. The cases cluster in three groups. First, there were the medium duration interventions (average of seven years) in the former Axis powers and the former Yugoslavia. These projects “succeeded” in the sense that when U.S. forces departed, the countries were not wracked by violence. Caution is warranted, however, before attributing stability to the U.S. troops who were kept around after the fighting and peacemaking concluded.

These countries were not “stabilized” by a couple of divisions from the Pentagon. Lasting stability followed costly, international wars. Residual forces then helped maintain peace – between countries, not within them. Crucially, the U.S. military did not adjudicate internal political conflicts like the present struggle between ISIS and Baghdad. In fact, a RAND study of nation-building noted that U.S. soldiers in Germany, Japan and Bosnia had been atypically safe; unlike their counterparts elsewhere, they experienced zero post-conflict combat fatalities. Considered in isolation, such cases are a poor guide for Iraq.

The remaining evidence suggests that, in the developing world, the more modest the goals, the more successful U.S. interventions have been. The second cluster of cases comprises five countries where U.S. forces reinforced or removed specific leaders. In Lebanon (1958), the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama and Kuwait the U.S. military stayed a year or less. U.S. troops did not stick around to arbitrate local politics or erect new governments from scratch. Their departure was followed by stability. The countries were not perfect by any means. In fact, the willingness of U.S. officials to defer to local institutions, warts and all, was a key asset. Set against the remainder of cases, these brisk, circumscribed missions brought far less tumult than the alternative.

The third group includes Iraq and a half dozen other places where U.S. forces stayed between two years and 10 years but did not deliver lasting stability. If the lesson of the second group was “less is more,” the third set teaches “more is less.” Extended and often costly military commitments did not end civil strife (Lebanon in the 1980s, Haiti and Somalia in the 1990s) or secure the countries from external aggressors (South Vietnam, Cambodia). Even in South Korea, sometimes mentioned as a model for Iraq, U.S. intervention after World War II failed to secure the local government. As Georgetown University Professor David Edelstein has written, it was the 1950 to 1953 Korean War, and not the 1945 to 1948 U.S. occupation, that saved the South Korean state and enabled the indefinite U.S. military presence there.

The range of U.S. interventions – from the triumphs to the quagmires – displays a recurring pattern. Sooner or later, whether in victory (Japan) or defeat (Vietnam), U.S. presidents defer to the power of the local society. Take, for example, then-President Ronald Reagan’s response to Lebanon. In his oft-quoted “Evil Empire” speech, Reagan warned: “If history teaches anything, it teaches that simple-minded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.” But the president’s Manichean posture belied deep pragmatism. Seven months after Reagan uttered those words a suicide bomber in Beirut took the lives of 241 servicemen. By the first anniversary of the “Evil Empire” address, all U.S. troops were out of Lebanon. Withdrawal was not appeasement; it was reason.

Fast-forward 30 years. As Obama ended the U.S. military presence in Iraq, Sen. John McCain charged that, “The administration seemed more concerned with conforming to Iraq’s political realities than shaping those realities.” If so, the White House was extending a strong bipartisan tradition of recognizing the limits of military force. We ignore those constraints, and the modest record of U.S. operations abroad, at our peril.

With ISIS on the march and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defiant, it is tempting to think the current administration could have done something different to keep Iraq from reaching this precipice. History, however, provides no evidence that a longer U.S. troop presence would have made the difference between state cohesion and state collapse. Unlike wine and violins, nation-building does not improve over time. It just costs more, in money and lives.

In the record of U.S. military interventions, the clearest destabilizing force is not the departure of U.S. military forces, but their arrival, with ambitious political projects in hand. It follows then that the eight-year U.S.-led occupation in Iraq was not a golden opportunity for nation-building, and certainly not one that would have worked out given a few more years. The occupation was an imprudent attempt to mold politics in the developing world and Americans will probably remember it that way, as a slow motion Somalia or a slightly abridged Vietnam.

Jason Brownlee (@jasonbrownlee) is an associate professor of government and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Democracy Prevention: The Politics of the U.S.-Egyptian Alliance (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and Authoritarianism in an Age of Democratization (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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