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Why Obama “owns” Iraq

The Islamist blitzkrieg in Iraq is the direct result of President Obama’s failure to maintain an American military presence there. As David French has shown, when Obama took office the Islamist extremists were a subdued and nearly defeated force. With a continued American presence, they would have remained subdued.

Some Obama apologists argue that we could not maintain our military presence because the Iraqi government wanted us out, and thus would not negotiate a status of forces agreement with us. In reality, though, Iraqi prime minister Maliki and his government wanted a continued U.S. military presence, and it was Obama who never seriously negotiated for this to happen. His goal was a complete military withdrawal so he could boost that he ended the war in Iraq.

You don’t have to my word for this. Dexter Filkins, who covered the Iraq war for the New York Times, has written an article in the New Yorker that lays out the sorry history.

I urge you to read the whole thing, but here are relevant highlights:

Filkins confirms that the Iraqi government wanted a continued U.S. military presence. He writes:

The leaders of all the major Iraqi parties had privately told American commanders that they wanted several thousand military personnel to remain, to train Iraqi forces and to help track down insurgents. The commanders told me that Maliki, too, said that he wanted to keep troops in Iraq. But he argued that the long-standing agreement that gave American soldiers immunity from Iraqi courts was increasingly unpopular; parliament would forbid the troops to stay unless they were subject to local law.

So there was a sticking point that required negotiations. Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not seriously negotiate:

For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis — like how many troops they wanted to leave behind — because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [one official] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’”

“The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

That, of course, is what happened.

Would a continued American military presence have made a major difference?

Many Iraqi and American officials are convinced that even a modest force would have been able to prevent chaos — not by fighting but by providing training, signals intelligence, and a symbolic presence. “If you had a few hundred here, not even a few thousand, they would be cooperating with you, and they would become your partners,” Askari told me. “But, when they left, all of them left. There’s no one to talk to about anything.”

Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told Filkins that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. This confirms that the full withdrawal was, indeed, an Obama decision, not something forced on the president by Iraqi unwillingness to negotiate a deal under which our troops could have stayed.

Rhodes tried to justify Obama’s decision by minimizing the impact we could have had if we had remained:

“There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” [Rhodes] said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.”

But this claim is unpersuasive. Filkins reports:

U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies.

“We used to restrain Maliki all the time,” Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, the deputy commander in Iraq until January, 2011, told me. “If Maliki was getting ready to send tanks to confront the Kurds, we would tell him and his officials, ‘We will physically block you from moving if you try to do that.’”

Barbero was angry at the White House for not pushing harder for an agreement. “You just had this policy vacuum and this apathy,” he said. “Now we have no leverage in Iraq. Without any troops there, we’re just another group of guys.” There is no longer anyone who can serve as a referee, he said, adding, “Everything that has happened there was not just predictable—we predicted it.”

“Everything” includes Maliki’s authoritarianism, which Obama’s apologists blame, with some justification, for the present difficulties. Filkins’ reporting shows not only that the Obama administration helped create this monster, but was actually warned by our diplomats that it was doing so:

[M]onths before the election, American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies. “We thought we were creating a dictator,” one person who signed the memo told me.

By pulling our military out, we effectively did. As Filkins points out, less than twenty-four hours after the last convoy of American fighters left, Maliki’s government ordered the arrest of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab. An aggressive campaign to crack down on dissent quickly followed.

After the U.S. invasion, it was said that, having “broken” Iraq we “owned” it. President Bush accepted that responsibility and American, at a great cost in lives and treasure, put the broken country more or less back together.

By pulling all of our military forces out of Iraq, President Obama has broken that country again. Whether he admits it or not (and he never will), Obama owns Iraq now.

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