Legs were a-tingle in certain quarters across America on Wednesday when Fox host Megyn Kelly told former Vice President Dick Cheney he had been all kinds of wrong about Iraq, and therefore we shouldn’t listen to him now.
Much as I like Megyn Kelly, this is pure hysteria. It’s of a piece with the hysterical allegation that Operation Iraqi Freedom was an “unmitigated catastrophe” (I heard that one today, from someone on Fox’s “Outnumbered” show), or that everything, but everything, is comprehensively George W. Bush’s fault, and “neocons” are “totally discredited,” and America endured a living nightmare in which everybody was chained to a wall being beaten and starved all day during that awful decade when the Zombie Apocalypse struck because we were in Iraq.
This whole theme is a case of barking hysteria. Indulging in it is a luxury afforded only to the very privileged. Most peoples, most of the time, are forced by collisions with reality to distinguish between genuine traumas and imagined ones. To the extent that the delusional caterwauling of our media and (some of) our politicians is representative, Americans are in a pathetic state.
Of course, the caterwauling media are not necessarily representative of our sentiments. If that’s the case for you, read on.
Eli Lake points out something today that should surprise no one, but that will get little coverage. U.S. diplomats are fanning out through Iraq as we speak, making contact with the same Iraqi leaders whom the Bush administration made common cause with to unify and pacify Iraq in the surge from 2007 to 2009. The list includes not only Anbar tribal leaders, but the left’s old bugaboo Ahmed Chalabi, one time expat resistance leader and politician-about-Iraqi-governments for the last decade. The military advisors being deployed to Iraq will need those Bush-era connections, in the administration’s view, to be effective.
It’s all part of a major shift for the Obama administration. Not only did the President pull out all remaining troops from Iraq in 2011. But since Obama came into power in 2009, U.S. diplomats in Baghdad have taken a largely hands-off approach to Iraq’s politics. For example, the U.S. military’s relationship with the Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders who helped oust the predecessor to ISIS in Anbar province largely withered away in the last five years.
Sterling Jensen, who served as the U.S. army translator with the Iraqi tribal fighters during the surge in 2007 and 2008, said U.S. military advisers who remained in Iraq after 2011—when all U.S. troops left—curtailed contact with many of the tribal leaders so as not to anger Maliki’s government.
“It’s been difficult for the military to do things, the U.S. embassy has wanted to show the Iraqi government that no one is gathering intelligence without the Iraqi government knowing about it,” said Jensen, who still keeps in close contact with the tribal leaders of Anbar and western Iraq. “Sending 300 special operations forces to Iraq could be a way to have some teams go out to Anbar and find out what is going on and rekindle these relationships that will be crucial to defeating ISIS.”
“Crucial to defeating ISIS.” If Bush and Cheney were wrong about everything, then we’re in what Bush Père would have referred to as deep doo-doo. Because the Obama administration is off ringing up all their old contacts from the battle to defeat ISIS’s predecessor.
The proposed Obama strategy, meanwhile – a very light U.S. military footprint in Iraq, and pressure on the Iraqis to work together and unite around their own defense – is in essence the strategy preferred and implemented, from 2003 to 2006, by the left’s favorite existential philosopher, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Rumsfeld fought hard to reduce U.S. troop levels in country after the combat phase in 2003, opposing the troop-intensive “COIN” (counterinsurgency) clear-and-hold methods favored by senior military leaders like Ray Odierno and David Petraeus. He opposed adopting the surge strategy too, ultimately resigning in late 2006 when it became clear that the momentum in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and in the White House was behind the surge.
Rumsfeld’s approach to Iraq started with more troops in it than Obama’s in 2014. But it’s going to be a pretty good guide to the effectiveness we can expect from Obama’s approach. We’re going to see a lot of annoying losses and reverses. We’ll see some awful, painful ones too. We won’t see much in the way of successes. And with an extremely light footprint, there will be a severe limit to what we can do about it.
This will be in part because of what hasn’t changed, which is Iraq herself. Iraq, in her modern, largely artificial borders, is still divided by ancient religious and ethnic loyalties. Sunnis and Shias too often feel themselves locked in a struggle to avoid being subjugated by each other. Taking sides is a fool’s errand: both parties have been guilty over the centuries. The irrepressible Kurds, for their part, are never more than 48 hours from surging forth to press ethnic nationalist claims when the opportunity arises.
This volatile mixture is agitated by the persistent influence of Shias and Sunnis from outside Iraq. But that leads us to what has changed since 2009: namely, overall political conditions in the region. The change in those conditions is what has posed the greatest challenge to the precarious unity established in Iraq by the surge.
That unity, and the relative peace in Iraq in 2009, should be neither oversold nor undervalued. It was a real accomplishment, but it did require tending. That said, it hasn’t fallen apart because it was bound to, regardless of any other factor. It has fallen apart mostly because of other factors. It has fallen apart because it couldn’t withstand the network of pressures placed on it by the Arab Spring, the civil war in Syria, and the rising tensions between Iran and the rest of the region.
Obama can be criticized for his handling of Iraq, but his general passivity throughout the Arab Spring, along with his administration’s other peculiar priorities for the region – its single-mindedness on an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, its cold shoulder to Saudi Arabia, its weak, ingratiating posture toward Iran, its preference for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – has had even more of an impact on Iraq’s fortunes. If Obama could have done only one thing to prevent the ISIS campaign in Iraq in 2014, I would pick forestalling the civil war in Syria over leaving a U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s concept of the Iraq problem, and its basic approach in the present crisis, aren’t different enough from the orientation of the Bush administration to justify anyone’s partisan triumphalism. It would be hilarious to suggest that Obama is going to get right what Bush got wrong. Indeed, excoriating Bush and Cheney for “being wrong” is just stupid. We could as well excoriate Reagan, Kennedy, Eisenhower, Truman, and FDR for all the foreign policy issues they and their senior advisors were wrong about – which was quite a few. Every one of them is still being second-guessed on major decisions to this day, and in most cases for valid reasons.
But the second-guessing is a parlor game, credible only in conditions of stability when the interpretation of an outcome really can be ambiguous. Like mob hysteria, second-guessing can be delusional and pointless and still affect decisions. Unlike mob hysteria, it is sometimes justified. But in the end, it is always overborne by the reality of unambiguous, unmistakable change.
The world is hurtling down the path of such change today. At this point, it’s small-minded and foolishly partisan to keep looking at Iraq as an issue of “Bush versus Obama,” or “progressives versus Bush.” Bush left Iraq in a tenable situation that required commitment from the U.S., if not necessarily a troop presence, and stable regional conditions. This was an accomplishment, but it’s not illegitimate to criticize Bush for doing no better than that. (It is illegitimate to assert that we’d be better off in any way if Saddam were still in power.)
The U.S. commitment to Iraq after 2009, under Obama, can also be questioned and criticized. But the stable regional conditions are what Iraq has lost unambiguously, and unmistakably. And Obama’s profound differences from all his post-1945 predecessors, even Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, are one of a very few key factors in setting the region, and the world, on that course.
No one has an infallible solution to the Iraq problem, whether we’re talking about today’s superficial symptoms or the historical, systemic causes from 500 or 1,000 or 2,500 years ago. The best of history’s solutions has been domination by a regional hegemon, which can keep Iraq’s instability in check for decades at a time. Since 1945, and especially since 1980, that hegemon was the United States. Americans decided, in November 2008, that it no longer would be. And now, here we are.