Is it right to blame the president for the rise of the Islamic State? Well, it’s not wrong.
Now that Iraq looks lost, Republicans like to blame President Barack Obama’s administration for losing it. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence repeated the charge in this week’s vice presidential debate, claiming that “because Hillary Clinton failed to renegotiate a status of forces agreement that would have allowed some American combat troops to remain in Iraq and secure the hard-fought gains the American soldier had won by 2009, [the Islamic State] was able to be literally conjured up out of the desert.” The fact that Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine uncharacteristically allowed this to pass without rebuttal made me wonder if he felt that any response he chose would have been a loser.
Those of us more or less in Obama’s corner usually scoff at this allegation as another partisan canard — “wishful thinking,” as Lawrence Korb put it last year, by those “trying to cast blame on Obama.” It was the Iraqis who lost Iraq, and above all then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite strongman who couldn’t see past sectarian identity and thus turned on the very Sunnis who had fought the Islamic State’s precursor, al Qaeda in Iraq, alongside U.S. troops. Maliki ultimately threw his lot in with Iran, the region’s great Shiite power, which was all too willing to support his crusade against the Sunnis.
Most of the blame must fall on Maliki and Iran, and on Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who turned a peaceful protest against his rule into a civil war within which the Islamic State was allowed to flourish. Had George W. Bush never launched his war on Iraq, the Islamic State would not have been able to exploit a vacuum there either. But is there anything at all to Pence’s claim that Obama, too, bears some blame for squandering, or failing to capitalize on, those “hard-fought gains”? I think there is.
For Obama in 2008, then a presidential candidate, Afghanistan was the necessary war and Iraq the fiasco draining America’s blood and treasure. When Obama visited Iraq in July of that year, according to Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, the authors of The Endgame, a mammoth account of the Iraq War, he told commanding Gen. David Petraeus that the United States needed to rapidly withdraw its troops from Iraq because “Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror.” Actually, Petraeus rejoined, “Iraq is what al Qaeda says is the central front.” It hadn’t been before, Petraeus explained, but it was now.
At the time, Petraeus was expressing a minority view and Obama a widely held one. Because the American people were heartily sick of the war in Iraq — because the war had so widely come to be regarded as a calamitous mistake — few people were prepared to accept the idea that it had nevertheless become the necessary war. Yet in retrospect, that’s plainly the case. Al Qaeda in Iraq was already the fastest-growing and most profitable unit of the terrorist network, while Osama bin Laden and his crew were largely bottled up in the mountains of Pakistan.
Let’s imagine for a moment that despite having premised his campaign on his opposition to the Iraq War, Obama had been persuaded by Petraeus’s claim and decided that Iraq was at least as necessary as Afghanistan. Could he have done anything that would have made a difference?
Pence raised the neuralgic subject of the “status of forces agreement,” a compact that the Iraqis refused to sign in 2011, thus compelling the removal of all U.S. troops. Obama officials, as well as neutral observers, have long pointed out that since the Iraqis refused to indemnify American troops against possible legal action, Washington could not agree to a deal. However, according to numerous accounts (including the one in The Endgame), Maliki had agreed to codify such an understanding in an executive agreement, but the Obama administration insisted that he gain the approval of parliament — which Maliki had said he could not do. The Obama administration decided not to take that risk because it did not believe that it needed to keep troops in Iraq. By the time the issue came to a head in the summer of 2011, Obama, facing grave budgetary pressures after three years of recession and a growing military footprint in Afghanistan, was prepared to make do with as few as 3,500 troops.
The Defense Department had asked for 16,000. It’s safe to say that even with a contingent that large, the United States could not have crushed al Qaeda; Maliki’s campaign of persecution against Sunni tribes and political leaders was minting extremists far more rapidly than U.S. troops could target them. Yet Derek Chollet — who helped formulate Iraq policy in the Obama State Department, White House, and Defense Department — concedes in his book The Long Game on Obama’s global strategy that even a “small residual force” would have given the administration more insight into the glaring failures of Iraq’s security forces — and perhaps also prevented officials from dismissing the Islamic State as al Qaeda’s “JV team,” as Obama memorably put it.
One thing the United States has learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan is that the military can win battles, but it cannot solve problems that are fundamentally political in nature. Here, too, the Obama administration made serious mistakes in judgment. In 2009, I traveled to Iraq with Vice President Joe Biden, to whom Obama had entrusted the Iraq file. Though concerned by Maliki’s sectarian instincts, Biden assured me that Iraq’s increasingly clamorous politics would force leaders to appeal beyond their own base. “These guys put their pants on one leg at a time,” he said. “They’re still politicians.” But Biden was wrong: With Iran’s unwavering support, Maliki could safely follow his worst impulses. Democracy produced not pluralism but competing forms of ethnic nationalism.
Maliki was the wrong man both for Iraq and the United States, and the administration’s critics argue that after the 2010 parliamentary election in which Maliki lost narrowly to the nonsectarian Iraqi National Movement, American officials could have and should have eased him out. Again, it’s all too easy to exaggerate U.S. leverage. In 2014, Dexter Filkins reported in the New Yorker that Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, brokered a deal among Iraqi leaders to keep Maliki in place. American diplomats then sought to rescue the situation by persuading Maliki to create a new senior post for Iraqi National Movement leader Iyad Allawi; Maliki made sure that Allawi had no real responsibility, and the arrangement quickly collapsed.
But the fact that you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. Just as Bush virtually abandoned Afghanistan in order to focus on Iraq, the war he really cared about, Obama allowed Iraq to stumble along on its own as he ramped up the “good war” in Afghanistan. Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2007-2009, has argued that since the American presence had kept Iraq’s communities from tearing each other apart, “disengagement brought them all back to zero-sum thinking.” Obama believed that Iraqis would not become self-reliant unless they no longer had the United States around to broker all their disputes. The fact that he has now sent 4,500 troops into the country is the most vivid evidence of how very wrong that hypothesis turned out to be.
At a moment when the American people want to turn their backs on the world, to build walls in order to cultivate their own garden, the president has a strong temptation to convince himself that things will work out well enough on their own or even that an American presence is bound to make things worse. That, broadly, is the stance Obama has adopted in both Iraq and Syria. In fact, the U.S. absence has turned out to be even more toxic than the U.S. presence. I honestly don’t know how the next president, even assuming that it’s Hillary Clinton, will be able to persuade the American people that engagement abroad, even in chaotic and ugly settings, works better than disengagement. She’s going to have to try.
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images