I agree with Andrew McCarthy over at National Review that George W. Bush deserves some of the blame for the cascade of events in which Iraq now finds itself. Bush thought by agreeing to a drawdown and withdrawal of combat troops, he would be doing the gentlemanly thing and would allow his successor a fresh start. Alas, it is always a mistake to try to force international problems to conform to the American political calendar, and that is exactly what Bush did.
But those on the left who circulate talking points absolving President Barack Obama of any responsibility for what has happened in Iraq, and those who those who propagate them, seem to suggest that Obama and his national security team are irrelevant. Iraq’s fate was decided in 2003, they imply, and Obama bears no responsibility for what has occurred since he won the presidency. That is wrong: While the world does not revolve around Washington, American decisions can and do matter as does the choice of inaction.
Obama has at least been principled in his objection to the Iraq war. Unlike Secretary of State John Kerry or his predecessor in Foggy Bottom, Hillary Clinton, Obama was not for it before he was against it. But his disdain for George W. Bush’s decision to use force to oust Saddam Hussein trumped any desire to reach the best possible outcome. He was cynical: By refusing to take yes for an answer in retaining any U.S. forces in training or support capacities in Iraq (the Iraqi government was willing to grant immunity, but the White House demand to have the Iraqi parliament ratify that was both unnecessary and a bridge too far) Obama condemned Iraq to greater bloodshed. For Obama, it was a political calculation: He would fulfill his campaign pledge to withdraw from the “bad war” completely. If Iraq fell apart, he could blame Bush. And if it managed to hold together, he could claim credit for having the foresight to leave. In effect, he was willing to gamble a country of great geopolitical interest and a state in which the United States had invested heavily in blood and treasure for cynical political motives. He treated Iraqis like pawns, and forfeited the responsibility to make decisions which could nudge Iraq toward a more stable, pro-Western outcome.
Working in the Pentagon between September 2002 and April 2004, I was involved (admittedly, at a pretty low level) in many policy debates. A few I came out on the winning side. Most—including with regard to the longer term occupation of Iraq—the team on which I served lost. But taking the cards we were dealt and seeking the best possible outcome given that new hand was a guiding principle. Unfortunately, Obama stopped engaging the moment he entered the White House because of a 2003 decision with which he disagreed. Leadership is not claiming the buck stopped ten years ago; leadership is about making decisions and taking responsibility for them now.