JHI on the Issues 2016: Invasion of Iraq and Status of Forces Agreement

Candidate Statement: During the second presidential debate, Donald Trump repeated his claim that invading Iraq “was a disaster.” Trump stated: “She’s made bad judgments on Libya, on Syria, on Iraq. I mean, her and Obama, whether you like it or not, the way they got out of Iraq, the vacuum they’ve left, that’s why ISIS formed in the first place.”  During the first presidential debate on September 25, 2016, Hillary Clinton stated that it was President Bush who determined when U.S. troops would leave Iraq, and that the Iraqi government would not give the United States a new status of forces agreement. “But the larger point—and he says this constantly—is George W. Bush made the agreement about when American troops would leave Iraq, not Barack Obama. And the only way that American troops could have stayed in Iraq is to get an agreement from the then-Iraqi government that would have protected our troops, and the Iraqi government would not give that.”

Summary: Both candidates talk as if there are only two lessons to learn from the Iraq war: that it was a mistake to invade and that Phase IV, occupation and stabilization, was botched—thus a needless war was also needlessly costly.  In hindsight, the case for invading Iraq is not as strong as was thought at the time, and mistakes did contribute to making the war more costly than it should have been.  But the candidates are ignoring two other, equally important lessons from Iraq: (i) it was a mistake to oppose the surge, which rescued Iraq from a trajectory toward failure and put it on a trajectory toward success; and (ii) it was a mistake to botch negotiations for a stay-behind force and then to abandon Iraq entirely, which ultimately dragged Iraq back onto a trajectory toward failure.  Moreover, rather than demonstrating the futility of U.S. engagement in the region, the Iraq war and its aftermath offers a host of lessons about how and how not to engage the region.

Talking Points:

  • Saddam’s possession of and pursuit of WMD were the cornerstones of the arguments in favor of the Iraq War.  If President Bush had known the intelligence about Saddam’s WMD stockpiles was wrong, he would not have made the case for a full-on invasion to address the problem of Iraq.
  • Of course, we only know what we know now about Iraq because we invaded.  Without an invasion, there still would have been great uncertainty about the Iraqi threat.  And we also know that Hussein was in fact gaming the international sanctions, as the Bush administration argued, and did intend to reconstitute his WMD once he got the sanctions lifted.  Not invading Iraq would have left Iraq a significant international security problem.
  • Tough policy decisions always seem easier to make in retrospect. The decision to go to war in Iraq is understandable in light of America’s reduced tolerance for looming threats in the wake of 9/11 and the assessment that many had about Saddam’s WMD stockpiles at the time. 
  • The invasion plan went better than expected in toppling the Hussein regime, but the coalition was not adequately prepared for the societal breakdown that occurred and had difficulty in developing effective countermeasures to deal with the emerging insurgency. 
  • Despite the early stumbles, the Bush administration turned the situation in Iraq around with the shift to the “Surge” strategy and the substantial allocation of new resources in January 2007.  President Bush deserves a great deal of credit for taking this bold step in defiance of most of the conventional wisdom, including the united opposition of Democrats in Congress (especially Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton).
  • President Obama inherited an Iraq that was on a trajectory toward long-term success.  If he and Secretary Clinton had negotiated an adequate agreement with Iraq for the stay-behind force envisioned by the Surge strategy, they might have changed the course of history—helping keep Prime Minister Maliki hewing to less sectarian policies, bolstering the reliability of the Iraqi Security Forces, improving the intelligence picture and thus allowing for a more timely response to the rise of ISIS.
  • A strategy for U.S. engagement in the Middle East is available in JHI’s book, Choosing to Lead.

Analysis:  There is no need to re-litigate all aspects of the original 2002-2003 invasion decision.  Reasonable people can debate whether or not Iraq, the region, and the world are better off today with Saddam Hussein dead.  Likewise, with the benefit of hindsight, reasonable people can accept that the urgency for action in 2002-2003 was not as great as was believed at the time.  Therefore, any president, armed with different information, could defensibly have made a different call about confronting Iraq.  Having made the decision to intervene, the slowness to adjust to the budding insurgency is explainable, given the fog of war, but had unfortunate consequences.

With the surge, the Bush administration eventually found the right formula and deserves credit for making that tough decision in the face of relentless political criticism at home.  President Obama’s subsequent decisions on Iraq are harder to defend and have helped create the strategic instability we see in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.

The Obama administration mishandled the Iraq file from 2009-2011:

  • Overall, the Obama administration placed expediency and the desire to withdraw above building Iraq’s fragile institutions—which was the only path to an exit that would have left Iraq stable.
  • Obama cut back relations with Prime Minister Maliki, who was accustomed to regular interaction at the leader level. 
  • Obama posted a new ambassador to Iraq with little experience in the region who was unable to forge a unity of effort with U.S. military leaders and unable to forge good relations with Iraqi leaders.
  • The Obama administration was unable to help the Iraqis consolidate the results of their 2010 election in a way that built confidence in the country’s democracy; instead, they brokered a deal—agreeable to Iran—which kept Maliki in place despite the widespread perception that he had not won the election.
  • The Obama administration wrongly assumed that if the United States pulled back its support from Iraqis, that they would step up to the challenges of non-sectarian governance.  Instead, feeling less secure in their relationship with America, and under greater the pressure from Iran, Iraqi behavior became more sectarian.
  • The State Department, under Clinton’s leadership and afterwards, failed to adequately implement the “civilian surge” that was supposed to come in 2012 after U.S. combat forces left Iraq.
  • The administration kept lowering the number of forces proposed as the stay-behind force, reducing it to a level that many considered inadequate.  The lower troop numbers lessened the attractiveness of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to the Iraqi government—why make a politically difficult decision to support a continued U.S. mission if the force was too small to accomplish anything?
  • According to numerous senior Obama officials, the president never supported his negotiating team.  On the contrary, he repeatedly signaled that he was happy with them failing to secure an agreement, thus allowing him to enter the 2012 campaign season with the boast of “ending the Iraq war.”
  • In the end, the best deal the Iraqis were willing to offer was an immunity agreement covered by an exchange of diplomatic notes.  Obama and his senior advisors deemed that inadequate and turned it down.  In 2014, Obama ordered the return of U.S. combat troops to Iraq covered by the exact same protections he deemed inadequate in 2011.

Today, with hindsight it is clear that abandoning Iraq was a mistake.  It created a power vacuum that left unchecked the Iraqi government’s worst sectarian impulses and that undermined the effectiveness of the Iraqi Security Forces.  The failure to contain the Syrian civil war and the subsequent slowness to support Iraq allowed ISIS to create the most formidable terrorist threat of the modern era—a terrorist “caliphate” stretching from Syria to Iraq that has inspired thousands of foreign fighters and created a lingering terrorist threat to the homeland much greater than anything created by the original invasion of Iraq.

Questions the Press should be Asking:

  • Why did Obama and Clinton—as well as Clinton and Senator Kaine today—blame the Bush administration for their decision to abandon Iraq in 2011 when they boasted about that decision in the 2012 campaign?
  • Why did Secretary Clinton oppose the Iraq Surge?  According to Secretary of Defense Gates’ memoirs, she told President Obama she opposed the surge due to consideration of electoral politics.  Does she regret that position? How would this experience inform her decision-making process regarding Iraq and Syria today?
  • Donald Trump has claimed that the occupation of Iraq was botched, but he has also claimed that the United States should have just seized the oil.  What exactly does this mean? How could we have just seized the oil without further inflaming the insurgency U.S. forces found so difficult to contain?
  • What missteps did the Obama administration make in negotiating with the Iraqi government for a stay-behind force after the initial Status of Forces agreement ran its course at the end of 2011?  Why did Vice President Biden boast that he could “bet his Vice-Presidency” they would succeed in these negotiations?
  • If it was acceptable for U.S. forces to return to Iraq in 2014 and stay there until now, protected by an immunity clause guaranteed only by an exchange of diplomatic notes, why was it unacceptable in 2011 to leave U.S. forces in Iraq protected by the exact same measure?