Jeb Bush Is the Wrong Messenger on Iraq

But the message is worth hearing.

<> on August 13, 2015 in Ankeny, Iowa.
<> on August 13, 2015 in Ankeny, Iowa.

We do not have an expression, at least in English, for “the brother of the pot calling the kettle black.” If we did, we would apply it to the speech Jeb Bush recently gave at the Reagan Library in which he traced the rise of the Islamic State to President Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq rather than to former President George W. Bush’s reckless invasion of that country.

George Bush’s brother is not, shall we say, the ideal carrier of this message. Nevertheless, if I were Jeb Bush I would make the exact same allegation — first, because the Islamic State (IS) is the only adversary scary enough to make voters seek the protection of a saber-rattling Republican, and second, because Bush really can argue for a tougher policy on IS without sounding like a lunatic.

On the first of those two concerns, I remain unconvinced that foreign policy will play a major role, much less a decisive one, in 2016. Foreign affairs only weigh heavily in presidential elections when Americans feel deeply worried about the world, as they did during the Cold War, and in the disastrous aftermath of the Iraq war (though the economic crisis of 2008 ultimately eclipsed Iraq as a political issue). Neither Russia, China, nor Iran will haunt Americans’ dreams; the Islamic State, however, might. Their snuff videos have gotten voters’ attention. It’s true that Hillary Clinton had little oversight on the Iraq file, which Obama handed to Vice President Joe Biden in the summer of 2009. But since Clinton’s careful and largely hawkish tenure as secretary of state furnishes no obvious club with which to belabor her save “Benghazi” — a confusing crisis that did nothing to put core American interests at risk — IS is the best weapon the Republicans are likely to find.

It’s beyond dispute that Abu Musa al-Zarqawi established al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor to IS, in the vacuum created by the war in Iraq, and that he won a following by appealing to Sunnis enraged at the Shiite-dominated government set up by the Americans (though not necessarily at the invasion itself). Ergo, the Iraq war gave birth to IS. Yet it is also true that the “surge” ordered by President Bush, combined with the indigenous uprising of Sunni tribes known as “the Awakening,” left the precursor to IS reeling. Jeb Bush was not wrong in describing the surge as a “turning point.”

Then what happened? Did Obama’s “premature withdrawal” of forces from Iraq constitute the “fatal error” that gave birth to the Islamic State, as Jeb Bush insisted? This ignores the Iraqis themselves. The surge worked because it made political change possible; yet Nouri al-Maliki, then Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, frittered away that opportunity by turning on the tribes. As Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan note in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by 2009 “anyone affiliated with the Awakening was targeted for arrest by the state on dubious or nonexistent evidence.” This was a godsend to AQI.

The one chance the Obama administration had to shape Iraqi policy came in 2010, when Maliki narrowly lost an election to the more moderate Iraqiya party. But Maliki refused to acknowledge the outcome, and with Iran’s support formed a new government that excluded his rivals. The Obama administration supported Iraqiya, but ultimately chose to live with Maliki. In an article in the New Yorker, Dexter Filkins notes that some American diplomats were outraged by the decision — one actually quit — though he also quotes then U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey as saying that Washington could not out-bid Iran, and could not install Iraqiya leader Iyad Allawi, a moderate Shiite, as prime minister.* Nevertheless, Maliki’s re-election opened a Pandora’s Box of sectarian conflict.

In 2011, after failing to reach a deal on a status of forces agreement, or SOFA, Obama withdrew all troops from Iraq. Here, too, and more fundamentally, the question arises: Could he have done otherwise? In Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy, the Brookings analyst Michael O’Hanlon gives Obama great credit for listening to his generals and withdrawing troops from Iraq far more slowly than he had originally planned to do, or that his supporters wanted him to do; but he also notes that Obama might have been able to reach a deal with Maliki if he had tried harder. Weiss and Hassan observe that Obama offered to keep so few troops in Iraq — 3,500 rather than the minimum of 16,000 recommended by Mike Mullen, then head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — that Maliki had no good reason to press for ratification of the SOFA.

One can exaggerate the leverage that comes with a military presence. Even 16,000 soldiers would not have stopped Maliki from persecuting Sunnis, or AQI from exploiting Sunni alienation. And with no troops at all, last year Obama succeeded in pressuring the Iraqis to force out Maliki in favor of the more centrist Haider al-Abadi. Nevertheless, a significant troop presence might have been able to restrain Maliki’s worst instincts, to provide advance warning of the Islamic State invasion of Anbar and then Mosul, and to aid in the Iraqi fight against the extremists. If Obama knew then what he knows now — which, to be fair, no one did — he would certainly have tried much harder to leave behind a residual force.

In short, there’s a non-polemical case to be made that Obama did not act forcefully enough in Iraq, though he deserves far less blame for the current mess than either George W. Bush or Nouri al-Maliki (or, of course, Hillary Clinton). But it’s fair game, and Republicans have every right to make the case, at least if they begin by admitting George W. Bush’s culpability. Good luck on that one, Jeb.

That said, what should the United States do now? In his speech, Jeb Bush scorned Obama’s “minimalist approach of incremental escalation” in Iraq and Syria. Bush himself, however, is no maximalist; his views are somewhat more modulated than those of Marco Rubio, the one candidate who has taken foreign policy seriously. On Iraq, Bush vowed to do some things Obama is already doing, like training Iraqi forces and ushering political leaders away from the sectarian cliff, and some things Obama has declined to do, including putting forward air controllers on the ground to direct strikes and embedding U.S. troops with deployed Iraqi units. Bush pretended that these tactical choices would somehow turn the tide, which is absurd, though they would represent a heightened engagement which many Iraqis would welcome.

His proposals on Syria, on the other hand, would represent a real departure from administration policy. A President Jeb Bush would establish “multiple safe zones” across the country rather than the single Islamic State “free zone” that the United States and Turkey are now contemplating in northwestern Syria. He would also ground the Syrian air force, and thus end the reign of the barrel bomb, by enforcing a no-fly zone across the country. Of course this would require a major commitment of air power, chiefly if not solely American, as well as the introduction of ground troops from … well, it’s not clear where. Even with the “vastly” improved program of training Syrian rebels that Jeb Bush promised in his speech, he would need a national army to enforce those safe zones. Not the American one, presumably.

Some leading Democrats, Hillary Clinton included, endorsed a more robust American military role in Syria in 2012. That was before the Islamic State. While it’s true that the “minimalist approach” has barely restrained IS, a maximalist approach may not achieve much more without a reliable partner on the ground. Clinton now seems comfortable with the administration’s containment policy, rather than the “rollback” preferred by many conservatives (including Paul Wolfowitz, a Jeb Bush advisor).

Nevertheless, unlike “Benghazi,” the argument over the military and diplomatic commitment in Iraq and Syria — and even over who lost Iraq — is one very much worth having. Perhaps in their next debate, after they’ve finished commending Donald Trump for his contribution to the national discourse, the Republican candidates can get around to holding it.

Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

*Clarification, Aug. 14, 2015, 3 p.m.: Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey told New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins that the United States could not install Iyad Allawi, a moderate Shiite, as prime minister. An earlier version of this article suggested that the United States could not install a Sunni.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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