Conservative Fairy Tales on Iraq

Our guest bloggers are Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, and Peter Juul, Research Associate at the Center for American Progress.

George-W.-Bush-waving-001With Iraq heading into elections early next month, a handful of conservative analysts are spinning a tall tale: Obama lost Iraq to Iran. To call this ridiculous is to give it too much credit.

As with their attempts to misrepresent Obama’s strong record against Al Qaeda and other terror networks (thanks to David Ignatius for setting the record straight in his column) conservatives are spinning a laughably cartoonish story of what’s happened in Iraq.

Similar to the Cold War mythologies that the right has peddled for decades, this narrative only has potency if no one bothers to examine what really transpired.

At the most basic level, conservatives are attempting to convince the public that the Iraq war started on January 10, 2007, when President Bush announced the surge. The point of this is to give the Bush administration credit for the Obama administration’s withdrawal policy by claiming it would not be possible without Bush’s Iraq policies. Like all great propaganda, there is an element of truth to this claim: violence in Iraq has decreased since mid-2007 for a variety of reasons, and President Bush did, at the insistence of the Iraqi government, sign the U.S.-Iraq security agreement calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.

However, such details are beside the point — all conservatives are hoping to do is plant the idea that Bush deserves all the credit for Iraq’s stability. With this concept in place, conservatives can then pivot to claiming the Obama administration has squandered the Bush administration’s achievements by “abandoning” Iraq.

The usual suspects are among the authors of the Iraq fairy tale. Fred and Kimberly Kagan warned in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal that Iraq is being thrown to the Iranian wolves. Frank Gaffney earlier this month characterized the Obama policy as the “devil-take-the-hindmost abandonment of Iraq” which was resulting in an “Iranian puppet state.” Expect more hyperventilating of this sort to come. Why?

The truth is that many of the conservatives who supported the Iraq invasion back cannot bring themselves to own up to the central strategic flaw underpinning their initial arguments for the war. Back then, some proponents argued that an Iraq war was the panacea: the road to peace in Jerusalem led through Baghdad and a tsunami of democracy would wash throughout the Middle East, including Iran. The Iraq war was supposed to upend the Middle East. But instead of rooting out the despots in Tehran, it played right into their hands, and Iran ended up getting some of their best allies in the Middle East safely ensconced into power in Iraq (something Brian Katulis and Matt Duss pointed out to the Kagans almost two years ago) all under a security umbrella provided by the Bush administration. As Sarah Palin might say, “How’s that working out for ya?” (Actually she wouldn’t say it, because she, too, is blind to the damage done by a conservative foreign policy – possibly a result of being staffed by Randy Scheunemann, a key neoconservative activist behind the war).

Gaffney’s hyperbolic claim that Iraq has become an Iranian puppet state as a result of President Obama’s stated policy to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq (in accordance with the Bush-negotiated security agreement) is similarly foolish. Iran’s penetration of Iraqi politics isn’t due to a U.S. decision to withdraw from Iraq. It’s due to two major decisions made by the Bush administration.

The first decision was to invade Iraq, the overriding blunder conservatives are hoping to throw down the memory hole. Eliminating Saddam Hussein’s brutal but anti-Iranian dictatorship opened up Iraqi politics not only to Iraqis themselves (a good thing, to be sure) but also to Iranian influence.

The second major Bush blunder was to empower the most pro-Iranian elements of Iraqi politics — most notably the former Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, now the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — and enable them to seize the commanding heights of Iraqi politics. The effects of this move are still felt today, with the recent de-Baathification shenanigans the result of decisions made by CPA chief Paul Bremer in 2003 and 2004.

Conservatives would rather the public forget all of this as they gear up to blame Obama for anything that goes wrong in Iraq and praise Bush for anything that goes right. But it’s clear that the poor decisions made during the early years of the war continue to have a negative impact on Iraq’s politics to this day.

A key flaw in the conservative interpretation of Iraq has been to present Iraqi political actors as blank screens, waiting for the United States to project their power through security force assistance or economic development — and voila! We were on the road to democracy and freedom. The war’s proponents have consistently overstated the ability of outsiders — Americans and otherwise — to shape politics inside of Iraq.

It is a myth that Iraq was well on the path to democracy and freedom in late 2008 because of the 2007-2008 surge of U.S. forces. Yes, Iraq’s violence had declined sharply, but a fair assessment of Iraq’s internal power struggles at the end of the surge would have found a fractured political landscape. We described this landscape in a late 2008 report, just as the military surge was winding down. The surge may have reduced the motivation to use violence as the primary instrument of politics, but it did little to resolve the tensions that continue to bedevil those politics.

We suspect most Americans won’t pay that much attention to these fairytales. Like conservative talking points on terrorism, they’re not yet having an impact on the American public, according to recent polls. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll found that the whole basket of national security and defense issues are not punching through at all compared to the economy, health care, and other troubles at home. Conservatives are banging the drum and politicizing national security again, but it doesn’t yet appear to be working.

But when you read some of the same conservative retreads who shilled for the Iraq war — just remember, the Iraq war began in 2003, not 2007, and things like the rise of Iran’s regional influence began long before Barack Obama ran for president. If anyone lost the Iraq and Iran accounts, it was the the Bush administration. The Obama administration’s picking up the pieces in Iraq while taking the fight more aggressively to the real adversaries — the ones who attacked us on 9/11. In order to learn the lessons of our history, it’s important to get that history right.