That’s the takeaway from today’s big announcement, no matter how vehemently lefties may insist that yanking everyone out of Iraq was the right call regardless of what the consequences, a new terrorist caliphate included, might be. In fact, watching this clip, it occurred to me that all of Obama’s biggest foreign policy decisions over the past four years are really just attempts to relitigate Iraq by the left’s uneasy coalition of doves and R2P enthusiasts. Libya, for instance, was his way of showing how a modern, truly multinational western coalition might go about liberating an Islamic country ruled by a psycho. We’d seen what sort of unholy mess the cowboy approach could make in Iraq; now we were going to see what the “smart power” approach could do. Result: An unholy mess.
So Obama tried a different approach in another Arab Spring country, Syria. This time we wouldn’t put American servicemen into the field at all. We’d send some weapons to Assad’s enemies, but we wouldn’t so much as attempt to train our own proxy force of Sunni rebels (until very recently, that is, when the project collapsed in failure). If we’d minded our own business 12 years ago vis-a-vis Iraq, maybe that country, and the region, would be much more stable than they are now. Result: Syria’s become the unholiest mess on the planet, worse even than post-Saddam Iraq, with a seemingly inexhaustible army of Salafist fanatics squaring off against Assad, Iran, Hezbollah, and Vladimir Putin.
So O tried something new again, this time with Iran. What if, instead of invading Iraq or minding our own business altogether, we’d reached a diplomatic understanding with Saddam? Diplomacy is the thinking man’s alternative to war and the conscientious man’s alternative to total passivity, or so its strongest adherents might tell you. If we reached out to Iran on its nuclear program, not only might we be able to disarm them, we might convince them to negotiate on other flashpoints between our two countries, like Syria. Result: Not only does the nuclear agreement we’ve reached effectively grant Iran the right to become a nuclear threshold state in 15 years, Tehran is treating America’s interest in detente as a license to get even more aggressive in Syria and elsewhere.
And so at last we come to today’s announcement about Afghanistan. Tough call for O: Would he double down here on his decision to pull the troops out of Iraq in 2011, a giant miscalculation that gave ISIS space to thrive in a country that was being poisoned politically by Nuri al-Maliki (with Obama’s total acquiescence, mind you)? Or would he conclude, grudgingly, that critics have a point in wanting to keep a residual force in the field, especially given reports lately that ISIS has gained a foothold inside Afghanistan? The clip below is your answer. Obama would deny emphatically that he made the wrong decision in Iraq in 2011, of course, but I’d be eager to hear an explanation for why having 10,000 or so American troops in place there over the last few years to challenge ISIS before they made their move on Anbar province somehow wouldn’t have mattered to the jihadis’ position today. This may be as close as he ever gets to saying, “My mistake.”
Here’s the lingering question. Is today’s decision really the result of Obama having learned a lesson over time or is it a simple matter of him not having to worry about reelection anymore? U.S. troops came home from Iraq in December 2011, conveniently less than a year before O would need to face the voters. He got elected in 2008 by running against the war, and he already knew by the end of 2011 that he wouldn’t have the same broad appeal to swing voters that he’d had three years earlier. If he was going to win a second term, he needed his base out in force — and he knew what his base wanted to see in Iraq before they turned out. So he pulled the troops out, strategic considerations be damned. Four years later, he doesn’t need to care what voters think of him anymore and he really doesn’t want to leave office with another “disastrous early withdrawal” demerit to his legacy. So this time, oddly enough, we’re staying. Be grateful he’s term-limited or else today would have been another banner day for ISIS.