Shadow Government

Can Obama claim we’re leaving Iraq more responsibly than we entered?

In an earlier post, I raised the possibility that Obama may not live up to his campaign promise to leave Iraq more responsibly than we entered it. I am hardly alone in wondering about this, but I haven’t seen many attempts to document the ways that the exit is resembling the entry. A few caveats ...


In an earlier post, I raised the possibility that Obama may not live up to his campaign promise to leave Iraq more responsibly than we entered it. I am hardly alone in wondering about this, but I haven’t seen many attempts to document the ways that the exit is resembling the entry.

A few caveats are worth mentioning up front. The exit is still a work in progress and so there is plenty of time for things to go better (or worse) than might be forecasted now. Any judgment I or anyone else makes on the subject is provisional at best. Moreover, most of the critiques of the entry into Iraq owe more to partisan (or academic) mythology than to actual fact. But they have wide currency — indeed, in some quarters, they are accepted as self-evident truths — and so it is worth investigating the extent to which they might apply to the exit.

One of the earliest entry critiques was the charge that President George W. Bush hurried up the confrontation with Iraq in 2002 so as to distract from economic scandals and thus score an electoral advantage in the midterm elections. This allegation was made at the time by two people who later became high-level White House officials in the current administration. First, current WH spokesman Jay Carney, then a reporter for Time, raised the possibility that Karl Rove was orchestrating the Iraq timetable for political advantage. The second j’accuse was even more famous, Illinois State Senator Obama’s speech explaining why he opposed the Iraq war. Prominent in his speech was this remarkable accusation:

What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Roves to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income — to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.

At a time when the economy is suffering from some of the worst years since the Great Depression, the echo is unmistakable, and many critics believe that the Iraq decision was dictated by the 2012 election calendar. President Obama would have a hard time getting reelected based on the awful domestic conditions, but a campaign based on "ending the wars" might resonate with voters. The administration even has a couple of Enrons of their own to fuel the wackier versions of a conspiracy theory.

If you find it plausible that Bush let the difficult economic circumstances and the 2002 electoral calendar shape his approach to entering Iraq, shouldn’t you find it more plausible that Obama has let his far more daunting economic troubles and the higher stakes 2012 electoral calendar shape his Iraq exit?

Then there is the charge that President Bush failed to command the process and instead out-sourced his Iraq policy to his Vice-President who spoke triumphantly about the mission but ham-handedly interfered with the delicate diplomacy running up to the confrontation. Well, President Obama adopted an even more hands-off approach to Iraq and formally tapped Vice-President Biden to be in charge of Iraq policy. Biden certainly has been the most triumphalistic) Administration figure about Iraq. And, sure enough, critics have charged that Biden fumbled the account. One of those critics is me, for I am on record worrying that Biden may have stepped on the delicate diplomatic negotiations for a more enduring U.S. military presence back in August.

Shouldn’t critics who say that the failure of the UN process in the run-up to the 2003 invasion "proves" that Cheney was really the one calling the shots, and misfiring while doing so, likewise believe that the failure of the renegotiation process in the run-up to the exit "proves" that Biden misfired, too?

Finally, there is the charge that President Bush put in place the wrong team to handle his Iraq policy and these early failures doomed the effort.  Even Secretary Rumsfeld concedes in his memoir that picking Lt.Gen Ricardo Sanchez to head up the military side was a bad choice and Rumsfeld’s critique of the civilian head, Ambassador Bremer, is scathing.  The team struggled to work together and to understand the situation in Iraq.  The crucial early period was squandered, sowing the seeds that reaped the bitter fruit of the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. By all accounts, the Bush administration finally got the right personnel in place when the President tapped General Dave Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to implement the new surge strategy and their ability to achieve unity of effort contributed considerably to the surge’s success.

The Obama echo is striking.  Midway through his first term, Obama may have finally assembled a solid team with General Ray Odierno and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey.  But he started out with a choice that left many people, including myself, scratching our heads: picking Chris Hill to be the Ambassador.  Ambassador Hill certainly had a distinguished career, but he had no direct experience with Iraq and so was starting from square one.  Sure enough, within months credible reports were circulating about the poor civil-military coordination on the ground.  Perhaps the nadir was the description from one of his former subordinates of Ambassador Hill’s alleged wasteful distraction to grow a lush lawn on the embassy compound.  Perhaps the complaints were petty, but the more fundamental charge that the Obama team squandered valuable time that undermined future success rings nonetheless.  

Shouldn’t critics who traced the difficulties of the entry to the inability of the Bush team to work together effectively find similar connections between the difficulty of the exit and the troubles inside the Obama team?

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.