Shadow Government

Hillary Clinton and the Inconvenient Facts About the Rise of the Islamic State

It's time to end the Iraq surge revisionism.


What did the Iraq surge accomplish? To listen to the Hillary Clinton campaign and its friendly surrogates in the media these days, you would think it accomplished nothing. They want to convince voters that the surge failed, so as to absolve Clinton of any responsibility for what happened after she took office: the unraveling of Iraq and the eventual rise of the so-called Islamic State (IS), a threat so great that FBI Director James Comey called it more dangerous than al Qaeda.

The case for absolving Clinton from any responsibility hangs on a few claims, none of which stands up to scrutiny. The historical record is clear: Obama and Clinton inherited an Iraq that had serious problems, to be sure, but was on a positive trajectory towards success. Then, choices made while Clinton served as Secretary of State contributed to the reversal of that trajectory, and the ultimate rise of IS. (Disclosure: I support Jeb Bush’s candidacy and have contributed money to his campaign.)

To absolve Clinton, you must first assert that the surge accomplished nothing — that when President Obama and Secretary Clinton took office, the Iraq project was doomed, and the rise of IS a foregone conclusion.

Serious independent analysts have confirmed that the surge transformed Iraq, though they continue to debate over how much credit to give to which component of the surge.

Academic debates aside, the Obama team itself, including Clinton, have repeatedly confirmed that they understand that the surge was successful. Clinton even conceded to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates: “The surge worked.” Vice President Joe Biden was so confident in the surge’s accomplishments that he boasted that Iraq is “going to be one of the great achievements of this administration.” Biden also dismissed concerns about the return of al Qaeda in Iraq because he saw how decisively the surge had beaten them back. And just this year, President Obama acknowledged that the tribal awakening component of the surge “helped defeat AQI — the precursor of ISIL — during the Iraq War in 2006.” (AQI remained a formidable force in 2006, but by 2009 coalition forces had won decisively.)

Finally, it is hard to square the assertion that the surge was a failure with two other inconvenient facts. Obama and Clinton ordered an Iraq-surge-like option in Afghanistan and, when they needed a new commander, pressed the same General David Petraeus, who led the Iraq surge, to lead the new campaign. If the surge was so inconsequential, why did they try to replicate it in Afghanistan?

To absolve Clinton, you must next assert that even if the surge did accomplish something, its undoing is Bush’s fault, since he signed a withdrawal timetable with the Iraqi government.

Some Clinton defenders now concede the obvious — the surge worked, and allowing it to unravel by withdrawing all U.S. combat forces was a mistake — but then argue that its undoing can be pinned on Bush, who signed the timetable agreement with the Iraqi government.

Let’s set aside the awkwardness that this line of argument only attained prominence once the situation in Iraq had deteriorated. During his 2012 reelection campaign, President Obama and his campaign surrogates repeatedly claimed that the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq was his great achievement. They were far less inclined to credit or blame Bush for the withdrawal back then.

The real problem with this line of argument: it ignores the fact that U.S. and Iraqi officials also agreed to continue negotiating a follow-on deal that would allow a sizable U.S. force to remain, but under new terms. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki wanted the formal acknowledgment of an end to the war phase in advance of his own re-election campaign, and then indicated he would negotiate a follow-on agreement after he had secured another term, which he did in 2010.

Obama and Clinton inherited both of those elements — the formal agreement and the intention to negotiate a follow-on deal — and they adopted both as their own policies.

Again, the Obama team’s own words prove the point. Biden was so confident they would get the follow-on deal that he famously boasted: “Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise…I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the [status of forces agreement].” The negotiations by the Obama-Clinton team failed, despite the desire of U.S. military officers, diplomats, and many Iraqi officials to keep a residual American presence in Iraq.

Now, of course, it is possible that the Biden quote exaggerates Obama’s and Clinton’s own confidence. Indeed, it is possible the Obama administration pursued those negotiations only half-heartedly – there’s some evidence of that. But either the administration tried and failed to get a follow-on agreement, or it never really tried all that hard. Either way, the Obama team surely bears some responsibility for the outcome. And for a foreign policy matter of this great importance, should not some of that responsibility rest with the secretary of state?

If Obama and Clinton were disappointed by their failure to negotiate the deal, I have not been able to find where they said so publicly. On the contrary, President Obama emphasized in the 2012 presidential campaign foreign policy debate with Gov. Romney that he thought it would have been a mistake to leave troops tied down in Iraq. “That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East,” he said.

Perhaps that’s because they thought the surge was so successful that it made it possible to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq without destabilizing that country?

To absolve Clinton (and Obama), you have to next assert that the failure to negotiate an agreement for stay-behind forces has nothing to do with the approach the administration took in the negotiations.

There are many reasons why negotiations failed, and every expert would agree that Maliki and the Iraqis bear a great deal of the blame. But it is simply not true that the Obama team played their hand perfectly. Here is just a partial list of missteps that I have compiled, each of which undercut negotiations:

  • President Obama invested minimal personal capital, abandoning the leader-to-leader-cultivated relationship that the Bush administration prioritized.
  • The administration lead was Vice President Biden, a person of considerable stature, but who had to overcome an especially high hurdle before he could win the trust of the Iraqis because of his earlier proposal to divide up Iraq.
  • Obama’s initial country team in Iraq never achieved the unity of effort of the Petraeus-Crocker team.
  • Once a competent negotiating team came together, the administration appeared to undercut it with deliberate leaks about the likely failure of negotiations.
  • The theory that convincing Iraqis we would leave would elicit cooperative behavior proved flawed. Prime Minister Maliki was even less cooperative with the Obama administration than he had been with Bush.
  • The State Department never adequately resourced nor planned for the daunting post-war mission its own strategy required.
  • The administration talked only of ending the Iraq war, and made little effort to mobilize political support at home or abroad for any follow-on policy to secure the gains that we and the Iraqis had together won at great cost.
  • The administration was slow and reluctant to tell the Iraqis how many forces they were willing to keep in Iraq. When it finally did, it was very late in the game, and the number — less than 5,000 troops — was so low that it undercut the Iraqi incentive to wage a political battle to obtain the administration’s desired legal framework for them.

Perhaps the sharpest critic of Clinton’s handling of the Iraq file during this period is her own hand-picked ambassador to Iraq, Chris Hill, who argued that she and other senior leaders in Washington ignored Iraq and left him abandoned. For all her globe-trotting, Clinton only visited Iraq once, hardly evidence of maximum effort.

To absolve Clinton, you must next assert that the final deal on the table in 2011 was unacceptable and that the administration had no choice but to walk away.

Another reason negotiations failed was because the administration insisted on an immunity agreement for U.S. troops that would be guaranteed by a parliamentary vote, rather than only by the Iraqi executive, as Maliki was offering. I have some sympathy for this position: if I had been in the administration, I would have pushed for the strongest immunity protections, too. But if that requirement really was the decisive deal-breaker, why did Obama order troops back into Iraq in 2014 with only the same executive-approved immunity he rejected in 2011?

To absolve Clinton, you must, finally, assert that the political and military abandonment of Iraq in 2011 did not matter because the stay-behind troops and the associated vigorous political engagement would not have changed the equation.

This is not a very plausible argument. A sizable stay-behind force would have given us more leverage over Maliki, better positioning us to shift him off his sectarian course. It would have allowed us to continue using our influence to dissuade him from firing competent military commanders and installing purely sectarian ones. It would have allowed us to work with the Iraqis to tackle the growing threat of IS while it percolated in Anbar, rather than waiting until it broke out and claimed territory in Mosul and elsewhere in 2014.

Let’s be clear. Obama and Clinton are not to blame for Maliki’s sectarian impulses or the errors of the Iraqis more broadly. Maliki is to blame for his mistakes. But let’s also acknowledge that Maliki’s behavior was far more conducive to U.S. interests when he believed we “had his back,” and when we were vigorously using our leverage to influence his behavior during the Iraq surge phase. Once we withdrew — both militarily and politically — a vacuum opened in Iraq which the Iranians exploited to further entrench their influence in the Iraqi political scene. Once we lost Maliki’s trust and gave up our leverage, Maliki’s behavior became more toxic.

And, finally, you don’t need to take my word for it. One of Obama’s own military advisors conceded that it was a mistake not to stay in Iraq. More tellingly, Obama himself tacitly conceded this fact when he reordered U.S. troops back to Iraq in 2014. How can you say U.S. troops would have been inconsequential from 2012 to 2014, then turn around and say their presence is required in 2014 and 2015?

Of course, IS became the threat it is today for reasons beyond Iraq. The failure of Obama’s Syria policy bears at least equal blame. His decision to abandon moderate Syrians to their fate had the predictable effect of destroying moderate rebel factions, paving the way for IS. At a minimum, a more robust effort earlier would have given us more options in 2014 when IS emerged. To her credit, Clinton claims she argued against Obama’s decision and so, while the mistakes happened on her watch, perhaps the fairer criticism is not that she was wrong-headed but that she was ineffective at shaping policy in Syria.

But a fair evaluation of her Iraq record would place more responsibility squarely on her shoulders. Every administration has made too many mistakes on Iraq — certainly the administration I worked for did. What is noteworthy about the Iraq mistakes Clinton made as secretary of state is not that she made them, but that she is so far unwilling to admit that she made them.

Given her record, it is understandable that Secretary Clinton struggles with the Iraq issue. But that does not excuse her campaign’s attempt to pretend that Iraq policy stopped in 2003. We are not going to forge a successful counter-IS policy if we think the only mistake the United States ever made in the region was invading Iraq. Decisions made on Clinton’s watch and after were critical to the rise of IS, and unless we learn from them — unless Clinton can honestly and candidly deal with this history — we risk continuing the ineffective policies of the last several years.

Photo Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images News


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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