In December 2011, President Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq after failing to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement with the fledgling democracy. Many military advisers, government officials, and Iraqi leaders opposed Obama’s decision, fearing it would diminish America’s influence in Iraq, destabilize the country, and damage America’s interests in the region. In the past year, many of these fears have come to fruition.
President Obama’s decision was irresponsible, and motivated largely by politics. Obama opposed the Iraq war from day one, and wanted a political victory to bandy about on the campaign trail. By withdrawing all U.S. troops from Iraq, he could boast, as he did repeatedly, that he had ended the war. Vice President Biden recently gave a telling interview to the New York Times Magazine, where he gushed about telling the president, “Thank you for giving me the chance to end this goddamn war.”
This quote is the epitome of the Obama administration’s policy: passion and politics over careful and strategic thinking.
Like Obama, Biden opposed the war from the beginning, opposed the surge (Biden’s bold idea was to partition the country), and wanted to wash his hands of Iraq, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, the Obama administration did this by undermining eight years of progress in Iraq, and harming America’s interests in the region.
Immediately after the U.S. withdrawal, Prime Minister Maliki moved quickly to consolidate power and stifle dissent. He began to crack down on Sunni and Kurdish leaders, dissident Shiites, and opposition groups. He ordered the arrests of scores of people on dubious charges, including Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. Thousands of Maliki’s opponents are in jail, and tens of thousands are in the streets protesting his authoritarian tactics. Meanwhile, terror attacks by al-Qaida affiliates — which are trying to capitalize on this sectarian strife — are on the rise. The situation was much better in December 2011; Iraq is clearly on a downward trajectory and is on a dangerous precipice of sectarian conflict.
Iraq is also causing other headaches for the United States. Recent reports indicate that Iraqi airspace may have been used to ship weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria (a claim that Iraq denies). And Iraq has been cultivating stronger ties with Iran, undermining the efforts of America and its Arab partners to isolate Tehran until it abandons its nuclear weapons program.
Would Prime Minister Maliki have been bold enough to take all of these actions if there was still a sizable contingent of U.S. forces in Iraq? Probably not. And would Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds, who are demanding fair treatment and equality under the law, have felt emboldened by the presence of U.S. forces? Probably so.
Why, then, did Obama barely lift a finger to maintain a U.S. troop presence in Iraq? Because he was making policy based on his political promises and beliefs, not the situation on the ground.
Between August and December 2011, only three U.S. service members in Iraq were killed by hostile fire (one in September and two in November). These deaths cannot be taken for granted. But they show how rare violence against U.S. forces had become. And if Obama had only left a small contingent of U.S. forces with a limited training and supervisory mission, this casualty figure may have dropped to zero.
To many Americans, this would have been an acceptable situation. U.S. troops would have been safe, and would have served as a stabilizing influence, just as they did in post-war Japan and Germany. And the money we would have spent on such a force would have been well worth it, given that the alternative was losing eight years of progress in Iraq (progress that came at the expense of 4,000 American lives and a trillion dollars).
Still, Obama decided to withdraw all U.S. troops. The president claimed he tried to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement, but that the Iraqis were intransigent. This argument was discredited by Max Boot’s persuasive piece in the Wall Street Journal in October 2011, and by many others since. Even the New York Times published a story undermining Obama’s claim he made a wholehearted effort to negotiate an agreement.
In that same New York Times article, an Obama administration official was quoted as saying, “Stability in Iraq did not depend on the presence of U.S. forces.” The facts on the ground tell a different story.
For the Obama administration, it was more important to end the “goddamn war” in Iraq than to protect the hard-won gains made during the eight years of that bloody, heartbreaking war. Obama is now facing a similar decision on Afghanistan. One can only hope that this time he makes a more responsible decision, based not on politics but on policy. But judging from his inaugural promise that “a decade of war is coming to an end,” Obama appears headed toward another strategic blunder.
David Meyers served in the White House from 2006 to 2009, and later in the United States Senate. He is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.