Obama Didn't Lose Iraq

The president's odds of a deal were slim. The real failures were always from Bush.

A decade ago President George W. Bush invaded Iraq. U.S. forces quickly triumphed. But that counted for little when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad last weekend seeking Iraqi assistance against Syria’s Bashar Assad. What Washington thinks doesn’t matter much in Baghdad these days.

Most Americans recognize that blame for the Iraq debacle lies with the Bush administration. It was a foolish, unnecessary war followed by a myopic, bungled occupation. No wonder Washington is finding benefits from its policy of being illusive at best.

Yet the leading cheerleaders for the war remain undaunted.

Of course, even they acknowledge that there have been problems. For instance, the Hoover Institution’s Fouad Ajami, a prominent defender of intervention in Iraq, admitted that as U.S. troops came home Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “was beginning to erect a dictatorship bent on marginalizing the country’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs and even those among the Shiites who questioned his writ.” Moreover, Ajami cited an Iraqi cabinet minister who observed that “With all the money the U.S. has spent, you can go in Iraq and you can’t find one building or project built by the U.S. government.”

National Review’s editors allowed that Maliki “has ruled as an authoritarian and Shia sectarian and has allied himself with Iran.” Moreover, “the promise of [Iraq’s early] elections, and of Iraq’s new democratic structures, hasn’t been fulfilled.”

The Wall Street Journal editors acknowledged that Maliki “has an authoritarian streak.” Moreover, opined the paper, “the Iraq war is a cautionary tale about the difficulty democracies have in sustaining lengthy military campaigns for any goal short of national survival.”

However, the Bush administration most assuredly was not to blame for such frustrated expectations. Rather, neoconservatives teach that everything is Barack Obama’s fault, including Iraq.

Yes, he came into the conflict late. Yes, he followed the Bush administration’s withdrawal timetable and honored his predecessor’s agreement with the Maliki government. Yes, he implemented the wishes of the majority of Americans.

But so what? He could have kept U.S. forces in Iraq.

Declared the Journal: “President Obama could have capitalized strategically on [Bush’s success] by negotiating a status of forces agreement that anchored the U.S. relationship to Iraq and provided a U.S. military bulwark against Iran.” Added the Journal, the president “could have struck a deal to station 10,000 or so U.S. troops in Iraq for the long haul, which would have sealed the kind of partnership Mr. Kerry now wants.”

National Review complained that Barack Obama “had no interest in building on [the Bush record] or even maintaining it. The administration failed to secure an agreement with Iraqis to maintain a U.S. troop presence.”

Ajami charged that “Mr. Obama made the Iraqi government an offer meant to be turned down—a residual American force that could hardly defend itself, let alone provide meaningful protection for the fledgling new order in Baghdad.” Thus, “Iraqi’s rulers decided to go it alone” since “the Iranian supreme leader was next door, the liberal superpower was in retreat.”

Thus we are stuck with an authoritarian premier and, complained the Journal, “an Iraq that is looking out for its own interests, with little concern for how they square with America’s.” Indeed, “Don’t be surprised if someday Iraq is remembered as the war George Bush won and the peace Barack Obama lost.”

Don’t bet on it.

First, the Bush administration, with added clout resulting from full-scale occupation and extensive combat operations, failed to win Iraqi acquiescence for a long-term U.S. garrison. Washington’s influence was bound to wane as the new Iraqi government regained its sovereignty and took over its security. Putting off negotiations over permanent bases reflected arrogance or incompetence—neither of which speaks well of the Bush administration—or an inability to implement such a policy, which explains the Obama administration’s approach.

Second, the American people wanted out of Iraq. The public was angry about being misled by the war hawks and did not want to forever patrol Mesopotamia. There was no popular support for adding yet another nation to America’s defense dole.

Third, Iraqis wanted U.S. troops to go home. Americans would not have allowed the French military to stick around after they won their independence from Great Britain. With domestic enemies weakened and foreign enemies absent, Iraqis saw little need for a permanent U.S. presence. More radical political factions, like that led by Muqtada al-Sadr, were hostile. The more urgently Washington had pressed its case, the more skeptical Iraqis likely would have become. Just what did the United States hope to gain?

Fourth, the Maliki government turned down the Obama administration. The president’s critics assert that he could have reached an agreement, but how? By snapping his fingers? Waving a magic wand?