Withdrawal Symptoms

Obama pulled the United States out of Iraq without actually ending the war. And now we're paying for it.


So this is what a "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq looks like?

Mosul overrun by terrorists more virulently dangerous than al Qaeda. Iraqi security forces throwing off their uniforms and fleeing, leaving all their high-end hardware — paid for by the American taxpayer — in the hands of our enemies. Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces streaming into Najaf and Karbala to protect Shiite Muslim holy sites. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki still incapable of building cross-sectarian cooperation even when ISIS is 60 miles outside of Baghdad. Kurdish paramilitary forces stepping in to protect only Kurdish areas, setting the boundaries for a secession bid. Militias forming to protect communities where the state has failed. Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issuing a call to arms. Jihadists are about to achieve control of a country, a sanctuary in which to train more jihadists and to plot attacks against the "far enemy." That would be us. The narrative of jihad will cement into a Sunni-Shiite conflict instead of a struggle by moderates of all faiths against barbaric violence in the name of religion, creating the circumstances for the next round of warfare in the Middle East.

Soon, either Iraq will be the caliphate Osama bin Laden yearned for, or the Iraqi government will be beholden to Iran for preserving it. Iran will have achieved a stunning victory: dramatically expanding and consolidating its regional influence while getting us to ignore its domestic repression and lethal influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in hopes of a nuclear weapons deal. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must be thrilled: so little invested, so much achieved. 

Here in the free world, we await the White House’s explanation that the collapse of our influence in the Middle East is really the fault of the George W. Bush administration. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has already spooled out that ludicrous defense. Back in 2008, when it signed the Status of Forces Agreement, the Bush administration anticipated remaining militarily and politically engaged in Iraq to stabilize security and consolidate democracy, working to integrate Iraq among our allies in the region, and building a bilateral partnership of the kind we have with Germany, Japan, and South Korea. 

President Barack Obama’s supporters insist he has always been clear about his objective to "end the war in Iraq." But neither the president nor his supporters have ever been straightforward about the fact that the war wasn’t ending. We just quit fighting it. The war continued. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton grandiosely claimed in 2011 that our "responsible withdrawal" of military forces from Iraq would be supplanted by the largest U.S. diplomatic program since the Marshall Plan. That never materialized. The Obama administration declined to use what leverage we had left to broker a stabilizing political bargain after the 2010 parliamentary elections, standing in silence as Maliki politicized the electoral commission (it invalidated numerous winning candidates), violated the Iraqi Constitution, replaced effective military commanders with cronies, and used the justice system to persecute sectarian foes (including the sitting vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi).

The administration complained ineffectually for over a year about multiple Iranian weapons shipments transiting a country that had no air force to patrol its own airspace and declined to police that airspace ourselves. We allowed Syria to go up in flames without even helping shield neighboring countries like Iraq from the migration of jihadists into their territory. The politicians who comprise the president’s national security aides might have even indulged some smug satisfaction to have the Maliki government now begging for the military assistance we offered and they declined with the Status of Forces Agreement in 2011. Those White House politicians might consider that the Iraqis publicly advised the Karzai government in Afghanistan not to make the mistake they had. But that would require less swagger and more compassion for the difficulties of democratic transitions in war-torn countries than this White House team has evidenced.

While answering questions about the Bergdahl prisoner exchange, Obama lectured, "this is how wars end in the 21st century — not through signing ceremonies but through decisive blows against our adversaries, transitions to elected governments, security forces who are trained to take the lead and ultimately full responsibility." In Iraq, he ended our participation in the war without achieving any of those things. Obama is now looking at the destructive consequences of his "responsible withdrawal" from Iraq. 

The president implied that Iraq would need military assistance in the near term. He gravely intoned that all options are on the table. His White House team rushed out afterward to clarify that "all options" do not include the option of sending American soldiers to bolster the Iraqis’ fight. Denying the Iraqi government assistance in a counterterror fight is going to finally and completely discredit Obama administration claims of support for our partners around the world. We have already lost the confidence of our friends in the Middle East (like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) that we care about governments killing their people; now we are conveying that we don’t even care about the advance of jihadists.

Given the speed of ISIS’s advance into Iraq, there is probably not time to pull together an international coalition of forces to share the burden of preventing Iraq’s fall to jihadists. At best we could loosely coordinate action among countries that fear Iran’s spreading influence. More likely, any assistance we now offer will be too late. Still, the White House is likely to conclude it needs to "do something" — the very worst way to get involved in a national security crisis. But they are certain not to identify a preferred end state and to allow the military to figure out plans for the use of force to achieve it. The Obama White House is once again telling our enemies all that we will not do, and failing to convince our allies that we will do much of anything. The president is so spooked by the prospect of "a third American war in the region" that he has compromised our security to prevent it. He ought to have understood that he wasn’t starting a third American war in the region — he needed to finish the first one.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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