A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.
A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.
By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”
As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.
If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:
I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.
So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.
Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:
President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. 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,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.
And then there’s this:
Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. [emphasis added]
To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.
The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.