THE BLOG
10/06/2014 10:53 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2014

Who 'Lost' Iraq? The Panetta Fantasy

A growing number of high officials in American foreign policy engage in two all-consuming pastimes. One is the relentless pursuit of power, status and acclaim. The other is striving mightily, upon leaving office, to doctor the historical record so as to airbrush their misdeeds while striking a pose of statesmanlike wisdom and skill. The unforeseen rise of IS is provoking an outbreak of the latter.

It is predictable that those who played prominent roles in the unmitigated disaster that has been American intervention in Iraq should rush into print to cast blame on other for the setback embodied by IS. In the process, they absolve themselves of all responsibility while vaunting their wise counsel allegedly rejected by less prescient colleagues and the president. So it has been with Robert Gates, L. Paul Bremer III, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and many lesser lights who occupy cozy sinecures in think thanks, universities and even the current Obama administration. Hillary Clinton has added herself to the list. Now it is Leon Panetta's turn. More will follow.

These strained attempts at rewriting history should be exposed and rejected not only to foil these unseemly campaigns to restore tarnished reputations. More important, it is imperative that we get the record straight so as avoid repeating errors that have led to serial failures over the past thirteen years in the Greater Middle East. The paramount truth, of course, is that the United States is godfather to IS since its lineage is through AQM which was formed in reaction to the American occupation, and its Ba'athist allies are the people whom Bremer summarily cast into the wilderness. But let's concentrate on the period from 2008 onwards and the assertion that Obama somehow mishandled the SOFA negotiations that produced the present crisis.

First of all, Washington suffered from over optimism from the outset. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were cocksure that the Baghdad government would take the offer on the table after only putting on a cosmetic show of haggling. They believed this right into the late Fall of 2008 on the eve of the SOFA's rejection. In the end, they were out maneuvered by al-Maliki and the Iranians who wanted the U.S. out. Second, the American attitude reflected an intelligence failure as to the make-up and outlook of the main parties in the government, and the degree of Iranian influence. The CIA (director, May 2006-February 2009: Michael Hayden; February 2009-June 2011: Leon Panetta; September 2011-November 2012: David Petraeus) bears the primary responsibility for that failure. Third, the claim that we could have pressured al-Maliki into accepting our terms by threatening to cut off all aid to his government is presented without any supporting evidence. Didn't the Iraqis always count on oil export revenues as their primary source of income? Doesn't it dwarf all the foreign aid that they have been receiving? (2013 oil export revenue: approx. $96 billion; US AID financial assistance approx. $350 million. The New Math evidently has been part of the Panetta legacy at the CIA/Pentagon.)

Fourth, we could not credibly threaten to shut down all military technical assistance because we thereby would be cutting off our nose to spite our face. Besides, the Iraqi leadership did not want us to maintain a physical presence in sensitive ministries because they had their own objectives that they worried we would pry into.

By late 2011 -- if not much earlier -- no alternatives to completing the last phase of the withdrawal were possible. It is fanciful to suggest otherwise. Was Washington to dig its heels in at the border crossing to Kuwait (figuratively speaking), chant "Hell no, we won't go!" and insist that the SOFA's terms be reopened? Backed by threats of duress? Is it imaginable that an increasingly dictatorial and paranoid al-Maliki would have invited us back into the negotiating room? Is it imaginable that Iran would have let him if for some inexplicable reason he contemplated doing so?

Fifth, as to anticipating, tracking and addressing the rise of IS, here again the errors of omission should be placed at the doorstep of the CIA and Pentagon (Secretary of Defense July 2011-February 2013: Leon Panetta). The story is murky at this point, but a few things are clear. We were slow to understand and appreciate the extent and immediacy of the danger. We apparently did not recruit and sustain agents in the military and key security ministries who could have kept us apprised of how the Iraqi capabilities were deteriorating. We counted only on the people who had worked with us directly; when they were bypassed or cut out or replaced by Iranians, we were left in the dark. Poor intelligence tradecraft. We did not maintain contact with tribal leaders in Anbar either. Iraq was yesterday's game -- or so it seemed. When Ramadi and Fallujah were taken, the CIA complained publicly that it had become too dangerous to send people from the Embassy into the province to check on things. Agents in place? E-mail? Telephone? Very poor intelligence tradecraft. General James Clapper (Director of National Intelligence) and General Keith Alexander (former Director of NSA) admitted that electronic surveillance was not focused on IS and associates until this June. Priority in the deployment of limited resources apparently was given the private phones of Angela Merkel and Dilma Rousseff. An unimaginably poor assignment of surprisingly scarce intelligence assets.

James Clapper admitted last week that "Despite all we understood about the capabilities of ISIL and the Iraqi Security Forces, we have no intelligence tool that could have predicted the ISF's sudden collapse in northern Iraq and the resultant ease with which ISIL forces captured territory." Isn't the relevant "intelligence tool" knowledgeable people on the payroll, here and there, and a bit of brainpower? Then there are retro tools like probability analysis and contingency planning.

It would be refreshing, and have a cleansing effect, if those who have held high office would demonstrate just a bit of candor about the reality of things -- including their own mistakes. The practice of constructing convenient virtual realities already has exacted an unbearable price on American national interests.