Obama came into office determined to declare the Iraq War over and come home. We engaged in a mad rush to go from 100,000 to 50,000 troops, which drastically decreased our leverage; at the same time we had a passive ambassador on the ground who was content to let events drift. Lately Joe Biden has been more involved, but our impatience for the Iraqis to finally form a government may have overwhelmed considerations about its composition. There are obviously limits to our control of Iraqi politics, but we should be using every possible instrument of persuasion to forestall the creation of a government that could be the predicate for renewed ethnic conflict.
The sacrifice of American troops during the surge bequeathed to President Obama a winnable war in Iraq. At this rate, we’ll read in the next Woodward book all the details of how he let it slip away.
The implication here is that the Obama administration has failed to sufficiently interfere in Iraqi politics to produce an outcome that accords with American preferences, but it’s unclear what “instruments of persuasion” the editors are talking about. It’s an article of faith on the right that “more troops equals more leverage,” but it’s important to remember that even at the height of the surge, when the U.S. had over 150,000 troops in Iraq, we couldn’t get the Iraqi government to do what we wanted. Now, as then, Iraq’s politicians are behaving according to political realities as they perceive them, and we tend to vastly overestimate the extent to which we can shape those realities.
One of those realities, as we’ve seen in the last few days, is that anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr remains a powerful player in Iraq’s politics, with Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi discussing the formation of a government in which they’d both be relatively weaker and in Sadr’s debt. As I wrote in 2008, Sadr and his movement represent the Iraqi reality America confronted, one far different than the illusion we’d created for ourselves going in. Obviously, empowering anti-American Islamist groups is not an ideal outcome, but if we’re actually serious about promoting democracy in the Middle East, it’s something about which U.S. policymakers are going to have to start thinking far more creatively.
But that’s all beside the real point of the editorial, which is to pretend that Iraq was in great shape thanks thanks to President Bush’s brave decision to surge troops there, only to be screwed up by that anti-war hippie, President Obama. While the surge clearly failed to achieve its political goals in Iraq, it did achieve its political goals to a more impressive degree here in the U.S., which was to rescue the reputations of the war’s supporters and enable them to make these sorts of arguments with a straight face.