Obama won the 2008 election in no small part because he promised to get the US out of Iraq. John McCain lost in no small part because he famously argued we should stay “100 years” if that’s what it took. The American people made their choice. To now say that having won on getting out of Iraq Obama should have instead turned around and adopted McCain’s losing policy idea is absurd.
This does not absolve Obama from his negligent inaction in the face of the [imminent] threat presented by the still growing ISIS invasion. That’s entirely on Obama and his band of national security incompetents. But the great “loss of Iraq”? That’s on the Iraqis. They were given a chance to build a decent country after Saddam’s removal and they squandered it.
Maliki, more than anyone else, lost Iraq by prioritizing Shiite hegemony over a better functioning state that would have required concessions to the Sunnis and Kurds. Maybe Iyad Allawi, a more secular Shiite who was respected by Sunni powerbrokers, would have done better as prime minister. We’ll never know. As for Obama’s contribution to Iraq’s looming “beyond Thunderdome” era, Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker makes the case:
When the Americans invaded, in March, 2003, they destroyed the Iraqi state—its military, its bureaucracy, its police force, and most everything else that might hold a country together. They spent the next nine years trying to build a state to replace the one they crushed. By 2011, by any reasonable measure, the Americans had made a lot of headway but were not finished with the job. For many months, the Obama and Maliki governments talked about keeping a residual force of American troops in Iraq, who would act largely to train Iraq’s Army and to provide intelligence against Sunni insurgents. (They would almost certainly have been barred from fighting.) Those were important reasons to stay, but the most important went largely unstated: it was to continue to act as a restraint on Maliki’s sectarian impulses, at least until the Iraqi political system was strong enough to contain him on its own. The negotiations between Obama and Maliki fell apart, in no small measure because of a lack of engagement by the White House. Today, many Iraqis, including some close to Maliki, say that a small force of American soldiers—working in non-combat roles—would have provided a crucial stabilizing factor that is now missing from Iraq. Sami al-Askari, a Maliki confidant, told me for my article this spring, “If you had a few hundred here, not even a few thousand, they would be coöperating with you, and they would become your partners.” President Obama wanted the Americans to come home, and Maliki didn’t particularly want them to stay.
The trouble is, as the events of this week show, what the Americans left behind was an Iraqi state that was not able to stand on its own. What we built is now coming apart. This is the real legacy of America’s war in Iraq.
Obama wanted out, true, but that’s partially Maliki’s fault too. He made it easy for him. Remember, one of the White House’s conditions for leaving some troops in place was legal immunity in Iraqi courts for U.S. soldiers stationed there. Maliki refused. The occupation was unpopular and so Iraq’s leadership, moronically, decided it was better to appease popular sentiment by refusing to budge on immunity than to make a deal guaranteeing an American presence just in case, say, thousands of barbarians with heavy weapons came sweeping down from Syria towards Baghdad. Obama could have and should have pushed harder for a rump U.S. force to give Washington leverage in pressuring Malaki on concessions. Go figure that Maliki, prizing his own power more than national stability, resisted. But look: Even if a deal had been made and 1,000 Americans were left in country to help train the Iraqi army, how would that have neutralized ISIS? The genesis of all this is in Syria. Had Maliki made nice with the Sunnis in Iraq, there still would have been a threat from the north; it might have developed more slowly and been resisted more vigorously by Iraqi Sunnis, but slow or not, there was no chance Obama would have sent more U.S. troops to reinforce the thousand already there. It was always the Iraqis’ fight. To blame Obama for the country’s disintegration is to play the old game (usually played by leftists and libertarians vis-a-vis interventions) in which all bad developments abroad are somehow a function of White House policy. Ain’t so.
As for McCain, it’s fine to note O’s role in all this but, as Drew suggests, this guy is uniquely badly suited to be the GOP’s loudest mouthpiece on Iraq. Having the most stalwart interventionist in Congress trumpeting a lost “victory” in a war that devastated the GOP electorally is insane. He went one on one with The One on this issue six years ago and got destroyed for it. And Phil Klein is certainly right, I think, that no matter how bad things get in Iraq over the next few weeks or months, American voters will support Obama’s do-nothing (or do-little) approach to handling it. At one point here, McCain describes ISIS as an “existential threat” — not just to Iraq but to the United States. (Say what?) If he’s serious about that, then presumably he supports any measures necessary, up to and including boots on the ground, in the name of heading it off. Run on that idea this fall and see how it turns out.