Iraq Revisionism on the March: We Won! We Won! Until…

RomeThe history of the American-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is being quickly revised. Faster than you can say Mission Accomplished, decisions and events are being refashioned to suggest victory was at hand until Barack Obama appeared and ruined the whole thing.

2008: Payday for the Sons of Iraq.

Mostly, the revisionism is the work of the Republican Party and its mouthpieces. They have an eye on the upcoming presidential race, in which they will portray Obama’s shepherding of foreign policy as a disaster and declare Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic Party candidate and former Secretary of State,  as owner of the legacy.

Of course, this kind of criticism is made easier if your own foreign policy was not a debacle, the biggest since the Vietnam War. It is that Vietnam Syndrome–the one of abject failure–that the GOP wants to shed.

This came to mind while watching the Iraq segment of a long interview of Charles Krauthammer by the Claremont Institute. Krauthammer writes a column that appears in the Washington Post and the National Review Online that is pretty much dedicated to dissing Obama for whatever. The Claremont interview was called “Success and Failures in Iraq: Charles Krauthammer on the American Mind.” Should have been “Krauthammer on the American Never-Mind.”

Krauthammer  lays out this Iraq story: success in getting rid of a “horrible dictatorship,” followed by a “catastrophic” occupation, followed by the “unbelievable success of the surge” that added more troops for a time but gave way to Obama “throwing it all away.”

You may have heard some of this before. The outline is notable both for what it leaves out and the distortion of the actual events.

Needless to say, Krauthammer does not talk about the two false justifications for the war: that the “horrible dictatorship” possessed a nuclear weapons program and had links with al-Qaeda. That would throw into discussion actual decision-making, and its associated deceptions. Krauthammer never even mentions George W. Bush.

The catastrophic occupation speaks for itself, though Krauthammer steers clear of tying the debut of al-Qaeda in Iraq with the American presence.

But the centerpiece of Krauthammer’s argument is the issue of the “surge.” In January 2007, the unmentionable Bush decided to send reinforcements to Iraq to assault al-Qaeda and keep Iraq from falling apart. On-the-ground generals also dispatched forces from the provinces to Baghdad to help keep order in the capital.

At least in the capital and Anbar province, this relatively stabilized the situation and drove al-Qaeda off. Drawdown from the surge began in November, 2007.

Krauthammer attributes everything but the Second Coming of Ronald Reagan to the surge: besides “decimating” al-Qaeda, it enticed Sunni Arabs, heretofore supporters of Saddam and fierce opponents of the US, to join the “infidels” in fighting the terrorists. Only Obama’s withdrawal of US forces at the end of 2011 truncated this lovely progress, according to Krauthammer.

Krauthammer ignores the actual sequence of events. The sequence is important because it shows that the key to a pacified Iraq lay in sectarian reconciliation, not in the numbers of US troops present. During the surge, troop strength reached 168,000.

The Sunni alliance with the Americans, known as the Sunni Awakening, actually preceded the surge. It formally began in 2006, although some tribes expressed displeasure with al-Qaeda and worked against it as early as 2005. Al-Qaeda atrocities drove the Sunnis into the arms of the US, not the perceived wisdom in Washington (which had, after all, disbanded the largely Sunni army after the war and kicked out members of Saddam’s Baathist party from government jobs). Even during the surge, US troops did virtually no fighting in Anbar province, home of the al-Qaeda-led insurgency. The Awakening was explicit that US forces not be involved.

The surge did have a pacifying effect on Baghdad, where the Sunni population welcomed it for a reason different than their co-religionists in Anbar: as protection against marauding Shiite Muslim militias. Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander during the surge, was indeed wise to take advantage of Sunni concerns. He had always been sincere in efforts to integrate the Sunnis into the official Iraqi armed forces and government.

But the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, dominated by sectarian Shiite parties, was suspicious of the Awakening and funded it only in Anbar. The Sons of Iraq, an armed Awakening offshoot formed to keep the peace in Sunni Baghdad neighborhoods, was paid for by the US.

The Awakening-Sons of Iraq effort began to disintegrate long before Obama burst onto the presidential stage.  The Maliki government declined to integrate the Sons into its security apparatus, even while the Americans were heavily involved militarily and still presumably influential.

Moreover, the big northern city of Mosul, an insurgency stronghold, was never pacified. Al-Qaeda and other rebels simply went to ground–in nearby Syria. The Iraqi army, which was tasked with taking the city from the rebels, let them.

Could the US have done more to influence Maliki to at least keep the Awakening alive? Perhaps. But it was Bush himself–in 2008!!– who agreed to a full US withdrawal by the end of 2011. American influence declined immediately. Somehow this sequence, decision and consequences elude Krauthammer’s memory.

Obama very, very, very reluctantly tried to get a negotiate a deal with Iraq to let a residual US force stay inside the country. But Obama also wanted Iraq’s parliament to explicitly sanction immunity of US troops from prosecution in Iraqi courts. Parliament would not go along and the deal fell apart.

This does not let Obama off the hook. He was just as prone to Mission Accomplished statements as his predecessor and he trumpeted the end of the US presence in Iraq as his own achievement. The numbers of troops he proposed to leave in Iraq–as low as 5,000 and never more than 10,000–would not have been able to swat a fly. And by the way, the insurgency, with or without al-Qaeda, never disappeared either under Bush or Obama.

What’s truly curious about the debate on the Republican side, is that it deals only with how to get out of the war. The lessons of how and why a country gets into one somehow seem unimportant.

Here’s the Krauthammer interview:

This a brief and more balanced view of what happened from the Wall Street Journal.

Lessons of the Iraq withdrawal for Afghanistan?

How the Arab Awakening happened.

A 2008 report in Los Angeles Times of Maliki’s sabotage of reconciliation. And an article by me about the Sons of Iraq worrying about about impending US troop withdrawal.

Another take on the decline of the Sons of Iraq.

A critique of the new surge mythology.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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