Can Obama take credit for ending the Iraq War without taking blame for what happens next?
Talk to a certain kind of Obama supporter about Iraq – as I do often – and you will encounter a curious line of thinking that goes something like this: President Obama deserves tremendous credit for keeping a promise and ending the war in Iraq. The departure this month of the last major military units ...
Talk to a certain kind of Obama supporter about Iraq – as I do often – and you will encounter a curious line of thinking that goes something like this:
President Obama deserves tremendous credit for keeping a promise and ending the war in Iraq. The departure this month of the last major military units marked a heroic turn in the war — heroic not for the troops, perhaps, but for the policymakers who had the foresight to end U.S. involvement in a foolish war of choice. Well, not end U.S. involvement, since the largest State Department footprint in the world remains in Iraq, to be guarded by the largest private security force the State Department has ever attempted to manage. But still the war is ending and for this "campaign promise kept" President Obama has earned the admiration of his boosters.
If you point out the rapid unraveling in Iraq, and ask whether a slower withdrawal that left behind residual forces might have preserved more stability in Iraq, the Obama boosters rapidly shift their reasoning. Obama had no choice but to take out all U.S. troops, they will say. The Iraqis did not want U.S. troops to remain and the American people were adamant that the war should end (before the 2012 campaign really gets going, is the silent coda). This was not an exit of choice, this was an exit of necessity.
Besides, it is Bush’s fault, the bitter-ender Obamaphiles say, because he saddled Obama with the 2008 framework agreement that set the 2012 troop exit deadline. Of course, to cling to this view requires ignoring that both sides, U.S. and Iraqi, viewed the 2008 agreement as an interim step, one that would be renegotiated after the Iraqi elections to allow for a longer-term U.S. presence. More problematically, it requires ignoring the lengthy but ultimately failed negotiations by Obama-appointed representatives to accomplish just such an extension.
So the Obama spin involves a remarkable double twist. Anything favorable that happens in Iraq is due to Obama’s courageous decision to end U.S. involvement. Anything unfavorable that happens cannot be blamed on Obama because he had no choice but to do what he did. I have encountered Obama supporters who flip back and forth between these two lines multiple times in one conversation.
When really pressed, some decry all attempts to ascertain whether President Obama bears any responsibility for what has transpired in Iraq on his watch as a "stab-in-the-back" exercise – an odious reductio ad hitlerum that seems designed to silence critics without having to do the hard work of engaging their arguments.
For now, the American people appear to be satisfied with this line of thinking. There is an undeniable Iraq fatigue and there are plenty of other challenges at home and abroad competing for the public’s attention. But if Iraq unravels further, this particular spin may not wear as well. And there may even come a day of reckoning when Americans will want a more candid and forthright debate over the choices President Obama has made.
Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.
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