Will the next president have to decide how to rescue the country from itself?
“The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not,” Sen. John McCain explained in 2008. “The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave and what we leave behind.”
President Obama, as we now know, decided to leave Iraq rather abruptly—and to leave behind a fragile, unfinished country. As Iraq limps into the unknown, many dangers and questions await. Because U.S. troops are in Kuwait or back in the states, Iraq will face those dangers alone and Washington will have little say in how those questions are addressed.
The debates over whether President Bush should have launched the war and over how President Obama ended it will go on for many years. Perhaps someday a consensus will emerge. But perhaps it won’t. It pays to recall that 36 years after the fall of Saigon, Americans are still debating the war in Vietnam.
Suffice it to say here that President Bush, after receiving approval from the Senate (77-23) and the House (296-133), ordered U.S. forces to take down Saddam Hussein’s regime because September 11 changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes in Surprise, Security and the American Experience, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible?
One by one, the Bush administration—and large, bipartisan majorities in Congress—answered those questions. And the answer to each was “no,” which is why September 11 led first to Afghanistan and then to Baghdad. This is perhaps the most fundamental way that September 11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not plan or hatch the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Hitler at Munich at once had nothing and everything to do with how America responded to Stalin and his successors during the Cold War.
As for President Obama’s decision to let Iraq stand or fall on its own, it should come as no surprise. It pays to recall that the centerpiece of President Obama’s foreign policy—indeed the very fuel for his White House run—was always withdrawing from Iraq. If nothing else, he deserves credit for keeping his word.
Of course, when it comes to national security, inconsistency would be preferable to instability—especially in the Persian Gulf.
“Our forces are good,” according to Col. Salam Khaled of the Iraqi army, “but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone. The loyalty of forces is not to their homeland. The loyalty is to the political parties and to the sects.”
What Col. Khaled is saying is that U.S. troops served as a backup when things got difficult on the streets, as a backstop against civil war and jihadism, and as a buttress against an expansionist Iran. U.S. troops simply cannot play these important roles from inside the borders of Kuwait, where Washington plans to garrison a just-in-case force of more than 20,000 troops.
In this regard, it’s interesting that President Obama himself cautioned during the 2008 campaign that the United States needed “enough troops in Iraq to guard our embassy and diplomats, and a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.”
The tiny embassy protection force of perhaps 150 troops cannot fulfill this multi-faceted mission, and the small army of U.S. private security contractors will not be authorized or equipped to go after jihadist elements, keep restive groups apart or settle sectarian disputes.
Before President Obama’s surprising announcement in October that he was pulling out the entire U.S. stabilization force, American and Iraqi military commanders, as well as State Department officials, had counted on a modest-sized residual force to provide security and training. Indeed, as Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, has explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led General Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” The troops would not be there to fight, but rather to deter flare-ups, train Iraq’s nascent army and secure key facilities. Along the way, they would send a not-so-subtle message to Iran’s leaders that the Middle East was not theirs for the taking.
But President Obama, in effect, undercut the too-little-too-late negotiations with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of a residual force of just 3,000 troops—a force not even large enough to protect itself. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reports, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year, despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.” That’s worth repeating: “no military commander supported” a complete withdrawal.
While it would seem that the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would deprive Iran and its militias of easy targets—Iranian IEDs, after all, have killed or maimed hundreds of American troops in Iraq’s postwar war—the reality is that the withdrawal leaves 16,000 American diplomats and civilians more exposed than ever before. In other words, there are plenty of American targets left behind in Iraq—and relative to a Kevlar-clad U.S. soldier, they are all soft targets.
In short, it’s not difficult to imagine grim days ahead for Iraq and for the political, diplomatic and military personnel trying to make sense of President Obama’s policy. To paraphrase Sen. McCain, the next president of the United States may have to decide how we rescue Iraq from itself—and from its neighbor to the east.
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