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Getting the Audit Right on Iraq

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maliki biden.jpgIraq surge architects Frederick and Kimberly Kagan have published an informed, provocative, yet thoughtful commentary, "Is Iraq Lost?," in the latest Weekly Standard.

The authors open with a blast at what they characterize as a self-congratulating Obama administration.  They write:

With administration officials celebrating the "successful" withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, thanking antiwar groups for making that withdrawal possible, and proffering outrageous claims about Iraq's "stability," "sovereignty," and the "demilitarization" of American foreign policy even as Iraq collapses, it is hard to stay focused on America's interests and security requirements. Especially in an election year, the temptation will only grow to argue about who lost Iraq, whether it was doomed from the outset, whether the current disaster "proves" either that the success of the surge was inherently ephemeral or that the withdrawal of U.S. troops caused the collapse. The time will come for such an audit of Iraq policy over the last five years, but not yet. For the crisis in Iraq is still unfolding, and the United States continues to have a huge stake in the outcome. The question of the moment is not "Who lost Iraq?" but rather "Is Iraq definitely lost?"

The Kagans share their granual understanding of the conflict and deal-making between various factions in Iraq's political ecosystem. 

They suggest, and I agree, that the U.S. troop withdrawal has impacted the previous equilibrium and changed the calculations of power players in the government -- and that President Nouri al-Maliki is moving to consolidate his control over the state, working to move Sunni rivals out of their positions -- and has used the pretext of an alleged plot against his life by Vice President Tariq al Hashimi to make his moves.

The Kagans write:

The withdrawal of all American military forces has greatly reduced America's leverage in Iraq. U.S. military forces were a buffer to prevent political and ethno-sectarian friction from becoming violent by guaranteeing Maliki against a Sunni coup d'état and guaranteeing the Sunnis against a Shiite campaign of militarized repression. The withdrawal of that buffer precipitated this crisis and removed much of our leverage. The withdrawal is complete and unlikely to be reversed. Still, the United States maintains some leverage in Iraq and considerable leverage in the region. The Obama administration will have to use all of its skills to maximize the impact of what leverage it retains.


I agree with most of the observations by Kimberly and Frederick Kagan about the fragility and downward course of political trends inside Iraq. 

That said, I believe that a combination of creative diplomacy and deal-making behind the scenes orchestrated and directed by Vice President Joe Biden and his national security adviser Antony Blinken -- in addition to the good work done until his departure by UN Senior Iraq Representative Ad Melkert -- held together a fractious political mess of rival groups that aren't yet fully sure that a democratic order best serves their interests.  But Biden, Melkert, and others made something work that was a complete mess previously and helped many powerful Iraqis realize that there was the possibility of a stable democratic political order rather than a future of convulsive, sectarian civil war.

That said, U.S. forces withdrawing have changed the equation.  One senior White House official recently said that the U.S. "can't midwife Iraq for 18 years; the baby is born and now we have to move back and see what comes of this country."

The point of disagreement I have with the Kagans about the audit they suggest is coming about who has been responsible for success or failure in Iraq has to do with how they frame responsibility for key decisions.  They write:

We can relitigate the wisdom of the invasion, the course of the war, the success of the surge, and other important questions endlessly, but one thing should be perfectly plain. From the moment U.S. forces left Iraq, President Barack Obama owned the policy and its outcome.


From my perspective, President Obama and particularly Joe Biden took a miserable part of the U.S. foreign policy portfolio -- that had already greatly sapped American power and prestige and undermined U.S. credibility -- and improved matters in a way that would not have been achieved without their efforts.

The daily negotiations Biden engaged in between Barzani, Talabani, al-Maliki, al-Hashimi and others -- who to this day have difficulty speaking directly to each other -- allowed for an elemental level of trust-building in the Iraq national enterprise among these rival individuals and groups they represented.  Maybe this will hold and maybe not.  But it's wrong-headed to think that Obama and his team "own" this mess because they have downsized U.S. vulnerability to affairs inside Iraq.

The more significant accounting needed on Iraq is that which led the United States not only to invade -- but then to double down on the surge, an attempt to obligate the U.S. to an empire-building set of responsibilities that the U.S. public never really debated or signed off on.  This is the conceit of many strategic elites who believe that the nation's national security decisions should be made without regard to the public's appetite for sacrificing blood and treasure abroad on questionable ventures.

Saddam Hussein was a monstrous leader -- no doubt.  But the world has many.  Saddam did not contribute to the al Qaeda machine that attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001; was largely in a controlled box that the British and U.S. were imposing with a no-fly zone over Iraq; and had not re-engineered stockpiles of WMDs.  The U.S. invasion of Iraq was an enormous strategic mistake because it triggered a downgrade regarding U.S. power in the world in the eyes of other important nations -- and emboldened the aspirations of Iran which the U.S. and its allies have a diminished stock of power to deal with today.

I think Biden and his team have done the best job that any outsider could have done in helping to calm sectarian distrust and to generate a commitment to a semi-democratic process as Iraq evolves.  That said, al-Maliki could turn out to be a successor strong man to Saddam Hussein; time will tell.

A fair accounting of this escapade, however, must start with those who wrongly obligated the U.S. to an invasion and nation-building project that harmed American interests from the outset.  Blame or achievement starts there. 

To presume that American citizens would go on paying the tab for the midwifing of Iraq for generations is very much out of touch with American aspirations and priorities today.

-- Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large for The Atlantic, where this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons

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