“The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not,” Sen. John McCain explained in 2008. “The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave and what we leave behind.”
President Obama, as we now know, decided to leave Iraq rather abruptly—and to leave behind a fragile, unfinished country. As Iraq limps into the unknown, many dangers and questions await. Because U.S. troops are in Kuwait or back in the states, Iraq will face those dangers alone and Washington will have little say in how those questions are addressed.
The debates over whether President Bush should have launched the war and over how President Obama ended it will go on for many years. Perhaps someday a consensus will emerge. But perhaps it won’t. It pays to recall that 36 years after the fall of Saigon, Americans are still debating the war in Vietnam.
Suffice it to say here that President Bush, after receiving approval from the Senate (77-23) and the House (296-133), ordered U.S. forces to take down Saddam Hussein’s regime because September 11 changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes in Surprise, Security and the American Experience, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible?
One by one, the Bush administration—and large, bipartisan majorities in Congress—answered those questions. And the answer to each was “no,” which is why September 11 led first to Afghanistan and then to Baghdad. This is perhaps the most fundamental way that September 11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not plan or hatch the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement of Hitler at Munich at once had nothing and everything to do with how America responded to Stalin and his successors during the Cold War.
As for President Obama’s decision to let Iraq stand or fall on its own, it should come as no surprise. It pays to recall that the centerpiece of President Obama’s foreign policy—indeed the very fuel for his White House run—was always withdrawing from Iraq. If nothing else, he deserves credit for keeping his word.
Of course, when it comes to national security, inconsistency would be preferable to instability—especially in the Persian Gulf.
“Our forces are good,” according to Col. Salam Khaled of the Iraqi army, “but not to a sufficient degree that allows them to face external and internal challenges alone. The loyalty of forces is not to their homeland. The loyalty is to the political parties and to the sects.”
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