Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Is it time for a fresh look at Obama’s Iraq strategy?

Fred and Kim Kagan have an important article on Iraq that should be required reading of everyone covering foreign policy in this presidential campaign season. Their bottom line: "Far from being a success, then, American policy in Iraq has created an extraordinarily dangerous situation over which we have almost no influence." The Kagans have earned ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Fred and Kim Kagan have an important article on Iraq that should be required reading of everyone covering foreign policy in this presidential campaign season. Their bottom line: "Far from being a success, then, American policy in Iraq has created an extraordinarily dangerous situation over which we have almost no influence."

The Kagans have earned the right to a respectful hearing on Iraq. They were some of the earliest critics of the way the post-conflict stabilization phase of the Iraq war unfolded, and they were some of the most persuasive and early advocates of the surge strategy President Bush shifted to in 2007.  

Just as their earlier position on the surge went from iconoclastic to conventional wisdom over the course of several years — so much so that even the Obama team, which tried very hard to thwart the surge from the outside, ended up acknowledging the surge’s success in the end — I suspect their current position may one day become the conventional wisdom: that Obama failed to lock in the gains of the surge and left Iraq in worse shape than might otherwise have been achievable.

The Kagans’ argument reminded me very much of a similar moment during Bush’s tenure, when we were trying to figure out whether our strategy was adequate or whether a shift to something new was required. Before we could figure out what changes were needed, we had to figure out that change was needed. This may seem obvious in retrospect, but it is not obvious in the moment when there are multiple indicators and trade-offs. The Bush administration reached that point over the course of 2006, and a key step in the process was identifying each of the assumptions behind the then-prevailing strategy and evaluating them with fresh eyes.

Obama’s Iraq strategy may well have reached a similar point, but I wonder if anyone inside is doing that kind of painful self-scrutiny. If not, the Kagans have given them a head start.

Fred and Kim Kagan have an important article on Iraq that should be required reading of everyone covering foreign policy in this presidential campaign season. Their bottom line: "Far from being a success, then, American policy in Iraq has created an extraordinarily dangerous situation over which we have almost no influence."

The Kagans have earned the right to a respectful hearing on Iraq. They were some of the earliest critics of the way the post-conflict stabilization phase of the Iraq war unfolded, and they were some of the most persuasive and early advocates of the surge strategy President Bush shifted to in 2007.  

Just as their earlier position on the surge went from iconoclastic to conventional wisdom over the course of several years — so much so that even the Obama team, which tried very hard to thwart the surge from the outside, ended up acknowledging the surge’s success in the end — I suspect their current position may one day become the conventional wisdom: that Obama failed to lock in the gains of the surge and left Iraq in worse shape than might otherwise have been achievable.

The Kagans’ argument reminded me very much of a similar moment during Bush’s tenure, when we were trying to figure out whether our strategy was adequate or whether a shift to something new was required. Before we could figure out what changes were needed, we had to figure out that change was needed. This may seem obvious in retrospect, but it is not obvious in the moment when there are multiple indicators and trade-offs. The Bush administration reached that point over the course of 2006, and a key step in the process was identifying each of the assumptions behind the then-prevailing strategy and evaluating them with fresh eyes.

Obama’s Iraq strategy may well have reached a similar point, but I wonder if anyone inside is doing that kind of painful self-scrutiny. If not, the Kagans have given them a head start.

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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