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.