The ongoing debate among GOP candidates about whether we should have invaded Iraq in 2003 and what we should do about ISIS underscores a rather uncomfortable reality: it is nearly impossible for a democracy to conduct strategic foreign policy. Public opinion gets in the way of strategic imperatives and in the end politics and perception trump sound policy.
Nowhere has this been more apparent than in Iraq, where President Obama in his first term discarded a policy that was working, for purely political reasons. Obama had promised during the 2008 campaign to “end the war” in Iraq, riding an anti-war sentiment on the Left and tapping into a sense of war-weariness among moderates. He floated a 16-month timeline for troop withdrawal during the campaign and tried his best to stick to it once in office, heedless of conditions on the ground.
Republicans presidential hopefuls need to make the case that even if invading Iraq in 2003 was ill-advised, a far worse strategic mistake was withdrawing in 2011. That means they need to understand what’s happened in Iraq, and it is not clear that many of them do.
How to Show You’re Uninformed
Thus far, none of the 2016 Republican contenders have fared well when asked about the invasion of Iraq. Rick Perry has done best by answering plainly, “No, I would not have done that.” Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, by contrast, have struggled to give straight answers. Bush simply dodged the question, and Rubio offered lamely that, “The world is a better place because Saddam Hussein doesn’t run Iraq.”
Of course, asking hypothetical, “knowing-what-we-know-now” type questions about the Middle East is a puerile way for journalists to grill presidential candidates on foreign policy. But, as David Harsanyi notes, when candidates respond by presenting a counterfactual history of how much worse things might have been in the Middle East had we not invaded Iraq, it marks them as unserious and ill-informed.
Things might be worse? Fine, but they’re mighty bad now and will likely deteriorate in the months ahead. ISIS just captured Ramadi, a city U.S. forces liberated from Iraqi insurgents at great cost in 2004. Whomever is president in 2017 will probably have to do something about Iraq, and voters will want some idea of what their new commander in chief will do, and why, and at what cost.
Americans’ Schizophrenic Opinions on Iraq
Public opinion about Iraq is hopelessly schizophrenic, and GOP candidates are struggling to distance themselves from President Bush while also appearing to be tough on threats like ISIS. It seems an impossible task. One year ago, 57 percent of Americans thought invading Iraq was a mistake, 61 percent approved of Obama’s decision to withdraw troops, and just 39 percent supported direct military action to help the Iraqi government fight militants. Yet by February, 53 percent of Americans said they favored sending ground troops to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. As more territory falls under ISIS control, that sentiment will likely grow.
In other words, we care about Iraq but don’t really understand what’s happened there since 2003. Harsanyi, responding to David Patten’s version of Rubio’s line, sets up a false dichotomy by asking, “Is there any honest observer of the Middle East who believes it’s more stable today than it was in 2002?” Of course not, but the important question is not whether the region is better off today than it was 13 years ago, but whether it is better off than it was when Obama took office in early 2009.
The answer is obviously no, it is much worse now, and the fault does not lie with the Bush administration. The Middle East debacle we are facing today, from Libya to Iran, is not a result of the 2003 invasion of Iraq but of policy choices made early in Obama’s presidency. Those choices were driven not by conditions in Iraq or anywhere else but by politics and ideology—the guiding lights of the Obama White House on nearly everything.
How Obama Lost Iraq to ISIS
When Obama took office in early 2009, Iraq was relatively stable. Its warring Sunni and Shiite militias had been subdued by the American military and Iraqi political factions were benefitting from America’s role as an impartial arbiter. Under our auspices, the Shiite majority government had no reason to become an Iranian vassal, and Sunni minorities had confidence that American troops would keep them safe.
By all counts, the Obama administration had inherited a peaceful Iraq. All the White House had to do was negotiate a status-of-forces agreement that would keep a sizeable-enough military presence in the country after December 2011 to deter an uprising and maintain the status quo. Iraq was by no means a functioning democracy, but neither was it a failed or even contested state.
But the Obama administration made no effort to renegotiate the status-of-force agreement with the Iraqi government, even though Iraqi political leaders were privately telling American commanders they wanted thousands of military personnel to remain. In his long piece for The New Yorker on post-occupation Iraq, Dexter Filkins quotes a member of the Iraqi parliament: “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible.” He also quotes the deputy U.S. commander in Iraq until January, 2011, commenting on the vacuum the U.S. withdrawal created: “Now we have no leverage in Iraq. Without any troops there, we’re just another group of guys… Everything that has happened there was not just predictable—we predicted it.”
Iraq soon descended into a Wahhabi-Iranian proxy war—the very conflict our robust military presence had prevented prior the December 2011 withdrawal. The absence of U.S. troops allowed ISIS to expand from its Syrian strongholds into Iraq’s Sunni heartland, and now Iranian-backed Shiite militias are battling ISIS for control of the country. As Mario Loyola has noted at National Review, Obama didn’t end the Iraq war. He restarted it.
If Republican candidates want to avoid stammering every time they’re asked about Iraq, they need to be ready to make this case—then articulate the principles by which they would weigh future engagements in Iraq and the Middle East at large. It might not be possible entirely to protect a strategic Mideast foreign policy from the vicissitudes of American voters or the perception that toppling Saddam was a huge blunder. But a minimum requirement for the Republican nomination should be the ability to explain why we’re having to talk about ISIS in the first place.