The Iraq war was not going well. The unpopular war cost the GOP the House. At the end of 2006 the Iraq Study Group recommended that President George W. Bush essentially give up on Iraq and shift to a non-military role.
As detailed in Peter Baker’s excellent book “Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House,” Bush had figured out his military advisers were wedded to a losing strategy, and that a defeat for the United States and Iraq’s descent into sectarian warfare would be disastrous for the United States, the region and the world. He worked around the Pentagon, collecting experts both in and out of his administration and, with Gen. David Petraeus’s assistance, implemented the surge. By his successor’s own reckoning, Iraq was stable and secure when troops left. Then President Obama put his political promise ahead of military advice from the Pentagon that had recommended a stay-behind force of 10,000. He reduced that to a minimal force and then pulled out the forces on the pretext the parliament had not ratified the immunity deal for U.S. troops.
Just like Bush did in 2006, Obama in 2014 faces the dismemberment of Iraq, the triumph of jihadis (made worse now by his own delinquency in snuffing out the Islamic States in Syria) and international chaos. He stalls. He gives a half-hearted speech. He does the bare minimum, insisting that his mission is humanitarian and he will never send in troops on the ground. The president is not a man who will surge, risking political backlash to spare the United States from a horrible national security outcome.
As a former congressional aide involved in Iraq strategy put it to me, “Unless we have a political military strategy for both sides of the border, we are in trouble. The problem is no longer just Iraq. It is Iraq/Syria.” Well, we don’t even have a strategy for one side of the border. With the incumbent prime minister trying to cling to power, the aide recommends, “We should be working every connection, every lever of influence, we have to convince the ISF [Iraqi security forces] not to back him, and that if they do so, they are signing their own death warrants and paving the way to the destruction of Iraq. We have nearly a decade worth of military-to-military contacts with the ISF, and every current or retired general who served there should be calling his old friends and telling them, they do not want to die for Nouri al-Maliki.” The notion however that we have to wait for political reconciliation to happen before devising a military approach (if we ever do one) disregards the lessons of the surge. The aide observes, “The problem is that the lesson of 2004-2006 is that you can have a measure of political progress, but it won’t translate into security gains unless you also get your military strategy right. It’s not either/or — it’s both/and. And on the military side, I am not sure we’re anywhere.” Neither is anyone else.
Unfortunately, we have a president who refuses to accept the role of wartime leader and cannot admit error in pulling all troops out. The result may be yet another killing field like Syria, and eventually a terrorist haven more dangerous than pre-9/11 Afghanistan. On all this, of course, Hillary Clinton is equally culpable. She too cheered the pullout from Iraq and to this day does not admit responsibility for — let alone error in — the failure to reach a status-of-forces follow on agreement. Will she have the nerve to recommend a second Iraq surge? I sincerely doubt it, and that is precisely why her claim to expertise and foreign policy toughness is so weak.