Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Who lost Iraq? I don’t think it was Obama, I think it was Iraq’s Shiite leaders

Iraq’s Shiites were an oppressed people. Now they are not. So why am I not happy for them, rejoicing in their rise?

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Iraq’s Shiites were an oppressed people. Now they are not. So why am I not happy for them, rejoicing in their rise?

I was thinking about this over the weekend. I think it is because I believe they were given a good chance to control Iraq, yet failed to grasp the opportunity. The surge did not win the war, but it did achieve a truce. Had Shiite leaders used that truce to reach out to Sunnis and try to chart a generous course forward, they might have emerged in triumph. Obviously, easier said than done. And I know that Shiite elements might have reacted murderously to anyone attempting this sort of outreach. But this sort of difficult reconciliation has been achieved in other countries in the past.

Instead, Iraq’s leaders, whenever faced with a decision in recent years, have chosen the narrower, exclusionary way forward. Rather than try to create a new Iraq, they seem to have gone with old ways and allied with Iran.

What did they expect to happen as a result? I don’t know, but the current dismal situation seems to be the natural result of what the leaders of the Shiites have done​.

This is all by way of saying that I disagree with the view, offered by Max Boot and others, that President Obama lost Iraq. I think Obama was elected in part to get the United States out of Iraq. (That’s no hit on Boot — reading him makes me think.) So he could not keep troops there indefinitely. Indeed, I think that having a relatively small number presence there last year — I don’t see how it could be below 15,000 to 20,000, given the support requirements of a force facing combat — might have made the U.S. government a hostage to the Baghdad government. And I don’t see evidence that additional American pressure might have made the Shiite leaders act any more generously.

Rather, I blame the Shiite leaders who were given a chance to act differently, and failed to grasp that chance. As the French say, They have made their soup, and now they are drinking it.

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Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1