No Escape from Baghdad: America’s Bipartisan Project in Iraq

September 16, 2014

The United States has essentially been at war in Iraq for 24 straight years. It began with Operation Desert Shield on August 7, 1990, with the first American fatality occurring just five days later. This war extends over four presidents and 16 Congresses, dominated alternatively by both major political parties. America’s current situation in Iraq and the surrounding area – both good and bad – is truly a bipartisan project. The irrepressible optimism of Americans that the United States has the power to “fix” any situation – even in a region where the complex web of enmities is centuries old – is established dogma in and beyond both the Republican and Democratic parties. Although it runs counter to the American tradition of unilateralism, almost every crisis point on the globe that has festered for decades – and this is one – requires a regional dialogue, which will often include people we do not like.

Unless we are content to have our children and grandchildren swim in this dangerous stew decades from now, we must have an honest debate about how we got to this point and what real options America possesses. In a political town such as Washington, one expects partisanship, but some recent criticism of the president has been so blatantly misleading that it can only be deliberate. One example was a recent essay in the Washington Post by former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen. According to Thiessen, President Bush warned about the awful consequences – presumably ISIL – that would result from withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Fox News, never to be outdone, broadcast some of these same comments by Bush, remarking on how eerie and prophetic they were.

Of course, the big problem with these quotes is that Bush made them in 2007. Even many of us who opposed the Iraq War in 2003 agreed with these comments under the so-called “Pottery Barn Rule” when applied to the exact situation Bush was addressing in 2007. At that point, American troops were still solidifying the military gains of the “surge.” Thiessen went on to imply that Bush would not have removed the troops, but the problem is he agreed to do exactly that. The Status of Forces Agreement that set the timetable for removing U.S. troops by 2011 was negotiated and signed by none other than President George W. Bush in 2008, a year after his “prophetic” statement. Even someone who pays scant attention to the news remembers the visit by President Bush to Baghdad during which an outraged Iraqi hurled a shoe in the president’s direction. He didn’t go to Baghdad to dodge footwear. He went to sign the Status of Forces Agreement.

Not to be upstaged by a speechwriter, former Vice President Cheney weighed in with his own criticism of President Obama’s Iraq policy. The Wall Street Journal‘s editors in a “Review and Outlook” piece walked through the Looking Glass and proclaimed that Cheney was “still right.” This is the same man who, as vice president, assured the American public back in 2005 that the Iraqi insurgency was in its “last throes.”   In the same interview, Mr. Cheney implied that the situation in Iraq would be stable enough to remove American troops not in 2011 as President Bush later negotiated, but before President Bush left office. If any of these predictions by Mr. Cheney were correct, there would likely be no ISIL today and no subsequent decisions by President Obama to now criticize.

In fact, Mr. Cheney has been so wrong for so long that it gets monotonous to have to keep repeating the litany: Americans would be greeted as liberators, the invasion would help make the Middle East more stable, the war would cost only $50 billion (not many trillions), and on and on. Why is anyone still listening to his pronouncements? No one is perfect, and certainly Mr. Cheney’s sincerity in proposing what he thinks is right to protect America is not in doubt. But, someone who has been so monumentally wrong and yet has never admitted to any mistakes – in fact he has been quite arrogant about his faulty judgment – is dangerous to include in the current debate. The news media should stop giving Mr. Cheney air time until he has the decency to acknowledge his own mistakes. The counsel of former President Bush, however, who showed capacity to learn and to grow during and beyond his second term, would be entirely welcome.

In point of fact, there has been a great deal of continuity on Iraq between the Bush and Obama administrations. President Obama completed the drawdown of troops negotiated by President Bush. The president also worked to fulfill the original design of President Bush (and yes, Vice President Cheney) in working with the democratically-elected government of Iraq, and training the Iraqi military so that it could replace U.S. forces and defend its own country. That, in a nutshell, was what Operation Iraqi Freedom was all about. President Obama can be second-guessed for not working harder to renegotiate President Bush’s Status of Forces Agreement and keep some American troops in Iraq, but a permanent mission was not what this war was fought to produce. The majority of the American people were clearly ready to stick with the negotiated handoff. Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki was also quite clear that he wanted the withdrawal deadline observed. Faced with this decision by the Iraqi government, the only way for U.S. combat troops to remain on after the negotiated deadline would have been in the status of an occupying force. That would not only have been counter to the stated objectives of American policy over two administrations, but would have exposed American forces to being fired upon by all sides.

President Obama does deserve real criticism, but not for the sins alleged by Cheney and Thiessen. First, President Obama erred in declaring a red line in Syria that he had no intention of enforcing. This conveyed indecision and weakness. Second, and more on point, he stayed committed to Prime Minister Maliki long after it was clear that Maliki was himself turning into an anti-democratic strongman, politicizing the army and ruling with a sectarian bias. When ISIL began to rise up, it was not compliance with the Status of Forces Agreement that was to blame, but the fact that the army had been weakened and the government, which it was supposed to defend, had been delegitimized. ISIL is a dangerous, metastasized form of fundamentalist extremism that has to be neutralized. And yes, that will require decisive military force as part of the solution. While it plays well to some crowds for certain predictable voices to say that the strategy must be to “kill them all,” many decades of Israeli policy and now the long U.S. global drone wars have shown that objective to be futile and often even counterproductive, as such force only breeds popular resentment and new recruits. Stability will only be arrived at through a regional political solution that removes the pockets of conflict exploited by extremists and eliminates the popular support on which their viability depends.


David W. Wise is a retired business executive. He is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.


Photo credit: Lietmotiv