Debunking the “Obama Lost Iraq” Myth

Pete Souza/Wikimedia Commons

If you don’t read anything else about foreign policy this week, I urge you to read Peter Beinart’s deconstruction at the Atlantic of the suddenly near-unanimous subscription of Republicans to a revisionist history of the Iraq War. Under this theory, the United States did not withdraw from Iraq after a painful realization that we did at least as much damage as we avoided by invading the country n the first place (not counting damage to Americans, American resources, and American credibility). No: whatever you think of the initial invasion and occupation, George W. Bush eventually “won” the war by listening to John McCain and empowering David Petraeus with a troop “surge” that beat down a Sunni insurgency and made Iraq reasonably safe–before Barack Obama took office and gave away the victory by yanking out U.S. troops and allowing the Sunni insurgency to rebuild into the monster that is now ISIS.

You now hear this theory from all of the GOP presidential candidates other than Rand Paul, and it’s usually accompanied by the idea of reintroducing U.S. combat troops to Iraq–you know, to put everything back to where it was when Bush handed over a free and united Iraq to the surrender-money pro-Muslim leftist who has now, as Bobby Jindal has said in a readaptation of an old law-and-order slogan, “put the handcuffs” on our military.

As Beinart points out, the central problem with the conservative myth is that the reduction of violence that accompanied the “surge”–accomplished more by bribes than by military action–never produced any sort of actual reconciliation between Shi’a and Sunnis in the country; indeed, the Maliki government began persecuting Sunnis as soon as he could, reversing the progress made during the “surge.” Removing U.S. troops had little or nothing to do with it, and reintroducing U.S. troops would not fix the problem.

The problem with the legend of the surge is that it reproduces the very hubris that led America into Iraq in the first place. In 2003, the Bush administration believed it could shatter the Iraqi state and then quickly and cheaply construct a new one that was stable, liberal, democratic, and loyal to the United States. By 2006, many conservatives had realized that was a fantasy. They had massively overestimated America’s wisdom and power, and so they began groping for a new approach to the world. But then, in 2007 and 2008, through a series of bold innovations, the United States military bribed, cajoled, and bludgeoned Iraqis into multiple cease-fires. The Iraqi state was still broken; its new ruling elite showed little of the political magnanimity necessary to reconstruct it in an inclusive fashion. And the Band-Aids that Petraeus and his troops had courageously affixed began peeling off almost immediately. Nonetheless, Republicans today say the Iraq War was won, and would have remained won, had the U.S. left 10,000 troops in the country after 2011.

Beinart suggests that the myth of the victorious surge, and the parallel myth that Obama “lost” an Iraq that was never ours, is forestalling a critically needed shift in conservative foreign policy wherein “the limits of American power” are taken seriously. With most Republicans now frothing for renewing an old war in Iraq against ISIS, while risking a new war against ISIS’ arch-enemy Iran, a full recognition of imperial hubris in the GOP seems as far away as ever.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.