An irresponsible exit from Iraq
In today's New York Times, Michael Gordon reports that despite the insistence by Obama supporters that he responsibly ended the mission in Iraq and their touting of our Iraq withdrawal as a foreign policy success for Obama, in fact, President Obama fumbled away the Iraq mission at a critical turning point.
In 2011, Max Boot reported in the Wall Street Journal about Obama's failure in the SOFA negotiation with Iraq. As Walter Russell Mead notes, it is unseemly, even shameless, for the Obama campaign to tout our Iraq withdrawal as a foreign policy success when it is actually a failure with long-term consequences.
23OCT12 add: Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler calls out President Obama's attempt to spin his egregious failure with Iraq as an intentional foreign policy success.
February & March 2013 add: In The World Today, Associate Fellow at Chatham House Nadim Shehadi upholds the Iraq intervention to object to President Obama's restraint from intervening in the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Syria. In the 25MAY12 New York Times Weekly, Mr. Shehadi applied the lessons of Iraq to Syria.
23JUL13 add: Ambassador Ryan Crocker urges, "The United States has a Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq. We must use it to engage more deeply with the Iraqi government, helping it take the steps to ensure internal cohesion. This was a major challenge during my tenure as ambassador, 2007-2009, and the need now is critical."
U.S.-Iraqi Relations, Embassy of the United States Baghdad, Iraq:
The Strategic Framework Agreement for a Relationship of Friendship and Cooperation between the United States and the Republic of Iraq (PDF version full text - 647 KB) [fact sheet] guides our overall political, economic, cultural, and security ties with Iraq. This agreement is designed to help the Iraqi people stand on their own and reinforce Iraqi sovereignty, while protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East. The SFA normalizes the U.S.-Iraqi relationship with strong economic, diplomatic, cultural, and security cooperation and serves as the foundation for a long-term bilateral relationship based on mutual goals.23JUN14 add: The Daily Beast reports, Obama Flips on Immunity for U.S. Troops in Iraq.
29JUN14 add: In The Daily Beast, Columbia professor Stuart Gottlieb says, Blame The Obama Doctrine For Iraq.
03JUL14 add: In the Washington Post, Ali Khedery, possibly the most experienced US official from Operation Iraqi Freedom, explains Maliki and the hard-won opportunity for a different course for Iraq that was thrown away under Obama. Reidar Visser criticizes the Khedery article.
23SEP14 add: Columbia University Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies video of panel discussion “ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and the US” provides a succinct explanation of ISIS and its origin.*
* Note: Saddam's regime was not a secular bulwark, as it is often erroneously represented by OIF opponents. Saddam's terrorism included jihadists, including affiliates of al Qaeda, and he had undertaken the sectarian radicalization of Iraqi society since the Iran-Iraq War. The Saddam regime's terroristic rule was why the de-Ba'athication was considered necessary, per UNSCR 1483 and Public Law 105-338, by the Coalition Provisional Authority. CPA senior advisers provide clarification on the de-Ba'athification. Learn more about the CPA perspective here.01OCT14 add: In his memoir, Worthy Fights, Obama Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta blames President Obama's apparent desire to disengage from Iraq with a passive-aggressive approach to the SOFA negotiation.
11NOV14 add: New York Times reports Sunnis who fought side by side with the Americans in the COIN "Surge" and Sunni Awakening have been slaughtered by ISIS.
02-24FEB15 add: In Mosaic, Michael Doran connects the dots on President Obama's fundamental transformation of US strategy in the Middle East based on rejection of President Bush's approach with Iraq and reorientation of American ME policy to empower Iran.
12FEB15 add: Politico reports on Iraqi Sunni leaders of the Anbar Awakening during the Bush administration who have been abandoned by the Obama administration.
19FEB15 add: In Foreign Policy, Ali Khedery blames President Obama's stand-off orientation and slate of decisions with Iraq since taking office in 2009 for the deteriorated situation, not just the troop pull-out in 2011.
February 2015 add: In The Tower, Michael Pregent, an advisor in OIF from 2005 to 2006 and 2007 to 2010, shares his observations of the constructive role the US did have (but not enough) and could and should have had in Iraq vis-à-vis Iran. (h/t)
17MAR15 add: In Foreign Affairs, Rick Brennan, a senior advisor in OIF from 2006 to 2011, describes "the bungling of the Iraq exit". (h/t)
07APR15 add: In Politico, Emma Sky, an OIF official and then senior advisor in OIF, laments the progress and opportunities lost in Iraq due to Obama's sharp deviation from Bush with an approach that favored Iran's encroachment in Iraq. In Politico, an object of Sky's criticism, Ambassador Chris Hill, tells his side; transcripts of Secretary Clinton's April 2009 remarks in Baghdad.
17APR15 add: In Slate, more from Emma Sky. In Telegraph, more about Emma Sky.
09MAY15 add: In Rudaw interviews, more from Ali Khedery and General David Petraeus's assessment of what went wrong in Iraq.
05JUN15 add: In Foreign Affairs, more from Emma Sky.
11JUN15 add: Bloomberg View reports on a Sunni Iraqi sheik of the Anbar Awakening who is now marginalized due to the abandonment by the Obama administration.
25JUN15 add: In Foreign Policy, Duke professor Peter Feaver notes the prevalence of blaming Bush for current events in Iraq in this Politico article and asks, instead, How Much Responsibility Does Obama Bear for Where Iraq is Now?
25JUN15 add: Wall Street Journal reports that Iraqis don't believe the US wants to defeat ISIS in light of their memories of the US defeat of AQI.
22JUL15 add: In a Fox News interview, General Ray Odierno believes Iraq was on the right track before the US pulled out and Iraq's current crisis could have been prevented with a continued US military presence.
30NOV15 add: In the Weekly Standard, Stephen F. Hayes and Thomas Joscelyn describe the cascading failings of the Obama administration in the War on Terror, many of them stemming from the course change with Iraq.
28FEB16 add: At the Lawfare blog, Syrian pro-democracy activist Ammar Abdulhamid explains that President Obama's 'lead from behind' approach has gravely harmed reformers in the Middle East who relied on American leadership of the free world.
11MAR16 add: Kyle Orton criticizes President Obama's radical course change, especially with Iraq, "empowering Iran against its neighbours, notably the Gulf States, since Iran had heretofore been contained".
16JUN16 add: "The final report of the CNAS ISIS Study Group proposes a strategy based on four key interlocking efforts and then describes how these efforts can be applied region by region in western Iraq, eastern Syria, southwest Syria, and northwest Syria." [Link to report is dead - summary here.]
10JUL16 add: In The National, Hassan Hassan criticizes Western "leftists or anti-imperialists" for "fighting the Iraq war through Syria" and thus enabling the humanitarian toll in Syria caused by the Assad regime and its allies, especially Iran and Russia.
15AUG16 add: In ProPublica and the Washington Post, Jeff Gerth and Joby Warrick report on the multiple ways the Obama administration degraded then eliminated the vital multi-thread US-Iraq relationship.
25AUG16 add: In the International Business Times, Kyle Orton criticizes President Obama for not enforcing his "red line" against the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons to quell domestic protests. Contrast Obama's enabling of Assad to the humanitarian component of the answer to "Did Iraq failing its compliance test justify the regime change?". President Obama's inhumane choices with Syria are a logical consequence of the stigmatization of President Bush's strict enforcement when Saddam failed his "final opportunity to comply" (UNSCR 1441) with UNMOVIC.
28SEP16 add: At Just Facts Daily, fact-checker James Agresti corrects President Obama and Secretary Clinton's "brazen lie" that the SOFA compelled the 2011 US withdrawal from Iraq.
October 2016 add: At the Hudson Institute, Michael Pregent and Kevin Truitte briefly summarize the current situation in Iraq and course of events that led up to it, and introduce the possible solution of an autonomous West Iraq. My criticism of the brief is the authors' omission of the US and UN legal framework that controlled decisions on partition and de-Ba'athification and omission of factual background on the de-Ba'athification and Saddam regime terrorism.
November 2016 add: In The Tower, Jamie Palmer ties the opposition to the Iraq intervention to the opposition to the Syria intervention, including the Syria intervention advocates who opposed the Iraq intervention.
27NOV16 add: In The Cipher Brief, Charles Duelfer calls for a re-alignment of US policy on Iraq essentially to the status quo ante before President Obama.
19JAN17 add: In Fox News, General Jack Keane and Maseh Zarif of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) advise President Trump to "zero on the following lessons from the Surge: 1. The national interest should always prevail over public opinion and short-term political calculations. ... 2. Recognize when your policy is failing and be willing to change it. ... 3. There is no viable substitute for American military power in certain crises. ... 4. Military action is a critical component – not the totality – of a successful anti-Islamic extremist campaign. ... 5. Securing the peace demands continued effort." (h/t)
13FEB17 add: In Foreign Policy, Michael Knights, echoing Ambassador Crocker's 18JAN09 unheeded warning to President Obama, cautions President Trump not to break the already fragile US-Iraq relationship and advises Trump to provide a counterweight to Iranian influence.
Michael Gordon's report of President Obama's poor leadership with the Iraq mission contrasts sharply with Gordon's report of historic leadership by President Bush with his decision for the counterinsurgency "Surge". Imagine the consequences if the US had withdrawn peace operations from Europe and Asia in the early 1950s like the US pulled out of Iraq at the 8-year mark. President Obama should have stayed the course from President Bush like President Eisenhower stayed the course from President Truman. Instead, Obama fumbled away the possibility of a reliable, long-term American partner in Iraq with an astonishingly passive-aggressive approach to the SOFA negotiation.
In January 2009, President Bush handed President Obama a hard-won turnaround success in strategically critical Iraq to build upon. The US was fulfilling the principal objective of bringing Iraq into compliance with the UN Security Council resolutions stemming from UNSCR 660 (1990). Looking ahead from the COIN "Surge", post-Saddam Iraq was clearly headed the way of Germany, Japan, and South Korea as a key regional strategic partnership. In May 2011, at the dawn of the Arab Spring, Obama described the historic opportunity for peace in the Middle East where "Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress".
Concurrently, OIF had set up a path to deal with Iran that relied on 3 prongs: stabilize Iraq as an American ally, increase sanctions pressure, and support civil reform in Iran. President Obama, instead, did the opposite of all three.
When the 2008-2011 SOFA was signed at the close of the Bush administration, Iraq was improving sharply. The Arab Spring hadn't happened yet, so the degeneration of the Arab Spring, especially in Syria, wasn't a risk factor. The 2008-2011 SOFA moved the US occupation from UN authorization to a bilateral US-Iraq agreement. The UN authorizations for the peace operations had been annual, so the 3-year US-Iraq agreement was a transition to a longer timeframe. Alongside and overarching the SOFA, the US and Iraq signed the Strategic Framework Agreement that set out conditions-based guideposts for the long-term US-Iraq relationship.
The 2008-2011 SOFA neither barred nor required a particular US-Iraq relationship for Bush's successor. If the trajectory of Iraq's progress had continued on pace, especially with the 2010 elections in Iraq, it was conceivable for the US presence to reduce sharply by 2011. The 2008-2011 SOFA provided a 3-year window for the next President to stay the course and advance Iraq's progress in the critical formative stage, then assess the situation and determine the transition to the next US-Iraq relationship per the SFA, analogous to Eisenhower's decision on the American global posture when post-WW2 transitioned to the Cold War.
Instead, President Obama contravened the Strategic Framework Agreement. As Emma Sky explains, Obama's disengaged approach to Iraq from the outset sharply deviated from Bush's developmental approach to Iraq. PM Maliki altered his approach in reaction to President Obama. Based on conditions in Iraq in 2011, with the added risk factor introduced by the Arab Spring, US military presence was needed past 2011. But as Rick Brennan explains, Obama's disengaged approach to Iraq from the outset of his presidency continued through his disengaged approach to the SOFA negotiation. Add: Speculatively, Obama may have insisted passive-aggressively on an Iraqi parliamentary SOFA because the SFA could house legal issues via executive agreement. The legal arrangement since mid-2014, such as it is, for US troops serving in Iraq is housed in executive agreement.
Excerpt from A Farewell Warning On Iraq (18JAN09) by David Ignatius:
[Ryan] Crocker arrived as ambassador in Baghdad in March 2007. Bush had already decided on a surge of additional U.S. troops there, but Crocker remembers wondering in the early days, "How on earth are we going to make this a better place?" A virtuous cycle slowly took hold: Newly confident Sunni Muslims began fighting al-Qaeda; Shiites decided they didn't need protection from the death squads of the Mahdi Army; and finally all the major Iraqi parties came together to endorse Crocker's appeal for a status-of-forces agreement and the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops.We forget now that the 'shock and awe' war to oust Saddam's regime was a resounding success. The high cost cited by anti-Iraq critics mostly occurred in the post-war occupation, ie, the security and stabilization, nation-building, and transition phases. Michael Gordon reports that a faction of officers and diplomats pushed for a rudimentary COIN strategy years before the COIN "Surge", but were rejected in favor of giving more time to the civilian-led Coalition Provisional Authority. In other words, counterinsurgency was the emergency back-up plan for Iraq when it should have been the starting strategy for the post-war occupation. The history of Iraq after Saddam could have been very different; based on what I've heard, there was a 'golden hour' in the immediate post-war in 2003 when our leverage and control in Iraq were at their maximum and the Iraqi people hoped for and expected us to deliver on our promises of liberal reform. However, the Coalition Provisional Authority, while intellectually capable, proved practically insufficient for the mission. The ruthless enemy seized the initiative and we lost the 'golden hour'.
The key to success in Iraq, insists Crocker, was the psychological impact of Bush's decision to add troops. "In the teeth of ferociously negative popular opinion, in the face of a lot of well-reasoned advice to the contrary, he said he was going forward, not backward."
Bush's decision rocked America's adversaries, says Crocker: "The lesson they had learned from Lebanon was, 'Stick it to the Americans, make them feel the pain, and they won't have the stomach to stick it out.' That assumption was challenged by the surge."
Soon, Iraq will be Barack Obama's problem. And I ask Crocker what mistakes the new administration could make. He answers that he thinks it will avoid these errors, but he lists them anyway: "Concluding that this was the Bush administration's war, that it's stable enough now, that we don't want to inherit it, so we're going to back away."
Most of all, says Crocker, policymakers need to understand that this is a long game. A lasting change in Iraq isn't an on-off switch: "Not this year, not in five years, maybe not in 10 years."
That being said, a harsh learning curve is usual in the competition of war and peace. OIF just demanded a steeper learning curve for the peace operations of the post-war than the war that deposed Saddam's regime due to the kind of enemies that adapted to the particular institutional weakness ingrained by the Powell Doctrine.
President Bush eventually approved the COIN "Surge" - over strong opposition to COIN by Democrats, from within the military, and even from within his administration - to correct for the Powell Doctrine and earn a second chance to win the peace. With the success of the Petraeus-led COIN "Surge", we paid dearly for a second chance but we won another opportunity to secure our gains, win the post-war, and build the peace on our terms in Iraq. Instead, President Obama's poor decisions removed vital peace operations and culminated in the failure to secure the next SOFA agreement with Iraq as one more and perhaps final 'what might have been' of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
We can only speculate the difference counterinsurgency might have made in Iraq had it been implemented from the outset of the post-war. I fear we will also speculate in the future whether we left Iraq too early to cement a constructive course for our erstwhile ward.
Note: Go here for prefatory explanation of the law and policy, fact basis of the decision for Operation Iraqi Freedom.