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Iraq’s descent into chaos has sparked a fierce, high-decibel debate over who is responsible, a debate that unfortunately overshadows the one we truly need about how to protect American interests there today.
The historical debate is, not surprisingly, highly partisan. One side condemns George Bush’s 2003 decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein; others blame Barack Obama’s 2011 withdrawal of essentially all U.S. forces, leaving Iraq to itself.
I am squarely in the second camp. Obama’s decision to elevate ideology and domestic politics over the national interest (plus his limp-wristed treatment of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program) is largely responsible. Understanding why requires two things the anti-Bush argument sadly lacks — appreciating both the hard reality of the Middle East over the past 35 years and, as important, how historical causation actually works.
Between 1980 and 2000, Iran and Iraq, for different reasons, were each hostile to U.S. interests. Nonetheless, successive administrations failed to resolve either threat satisfactorily. Ronald Reagan’s tilt toward Iraq in the 1980’s Iran-Iraq war, for instance, manifestly did not dissuade Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Indeed, hindsight now makes clear we should have overthrown his regime in 1991 rather than returning to the status quo ante bellum.
President Clinton’s “dual containment” policy was even worse, containing neither Iran nor Iraq, while allowing both to support international terrorism and pursue weapons of mass destruction. Clinton also ignored the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan and al-Qaida worldwide, tragically leading to Sept. 11, 2001. After overthrowing the Taliban in 2001-02, Bush next rightly decided to finish the first Persian Gulf War, since Saddam remained an obvious threat to international peace and security. America’s military did so with brilliance and speed.
The “blame Bush” argument rests on two assumptions, both wrong. First, it asserts that Saddam’s 2003 overthrow led inevitably and unalterably to the current state of affairs. But does the chain of causation flow solely and unavoidably from the 2003 decision to invade? No. History is rarely so direct. For example, disbanding Saddam’s army, thereby eliminating the paychecks on which many Sunni Arab families depended, helped fuel discontent during 2003-06 and, in 20/20 hindsight, has been harshly criticized. But was the decision to disband the Saddam-era army directly required by the decision to invade? Obviously not; it was entirely separate and distinct, as were the vast bulk of other post-Saddam decisions.
Moreover, Bush’s 2006-08 “surge” policy, which eliminated the al-Qaida threat in Iraq and re-established considerable domestic political stability, was not inevitably determined by any prior decision. Indeed, Bush originally was a minority within his own government and in Washington generally and most Democrats opposed it. Bush’s surge, however, created an Iraq so stable that the Obama administration would later try to steal the credit for its consequences.
Second, blaming Bush rests on the unverifiable but almost certainly incorrect assumption that had we not invaded in 2003, Iraq’s subsequent alternative history would have been smooth and peaceful. Such naiveté hardly comports with Saddam’s malicious history or the deep and bloody confessional hatreds now on display, not to mention later regional developments, such as the fratricide resulting from the Arab Spring. The blithe spirits content for Saddam to remain in power unchallenged also are shockingly careless with the potential regional threat he posed.
Subsequent incorrect decisions thus hardly invalidate the logic of the initial decision to invade. One can support the 2003 decision to overthrow Saddam without being required to defend every subsequent decision. Neither history nor real-life decision-making is like a continuously extruded one-piece steel beam. Manifestly, no one has to defend every decision, especially those with which we disagree, in a complex historical chain.
In fact, Bush’s overthrow of Saddam is far from either a necessary or a sufficient condition to explain Iraq’s current chaos. By contrast, Obama’s 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. forces almost certainly fits both those conditions by removing the military power that constituted our principal leverage over al-Maliki and Iran. Iraq’s inexperience with self-government, combined with Iran’s malign efforts to subvert the entire process, necessitated U.S. forces remaining there for several more years and in much larger numbers than Obama would accept.
Moreover, the absence of a status-of-forces agreement was not a real reason to withdraw but only a pretext camouflaging Obama’s ideology and mollifying his domestic political base.
Resolving the historical debate, however, still doesn’t tell us what we should be doing now. This is neither 2003 nor 2011 but an entirely different environment and Iraq’s collapse is accelerating. Our interests and those of our friends and allies haven’t changed but the options now open to us are, sadly, not what they once were. Obama now is in his sixth year of closing his eyes to the Middle East’s deteriorating reality and the global terrorist threat. If history tells us anything, it is that the United States will feel the pain.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.
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