Retreating with Our Heads Held High

Originally published in The Weekly Standard
October 21, 2011

Today, President Obama declared the successful completion of his strategy to remove all American military forces from Iraq by the end of the year. He said: “[E]nsuring the success of this strategy has been one of my highest national security priorities” since taking office. “Over the next two months, our troops in Iraq, tens of thousands of them, will pack up their gear and board convoys for the journey home. The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high, proud of their success, and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops. That is how America’s military effort in Iraq will end.” In other words, our efforts in Iraq end neither in victory nor defeat, success nor failure, but simply in retreat.

The humiliation of this retreat is compounded by the dishonesty of its presentation. Today, President Obama claimed that the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq was the centerpiece of the strategy he has been pursuing there since taking office. But that was not the sole or even primary objective of the strategy he announced five weeks after becoming president. At Camp Lejeune in February 2009, to an audience of Marines, he declared:

    This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant. To achieve that goal, we will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe-haven to terrorists. We will help Iraq build new ties of trade and commerce with the world. And we will forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq that contributes to the peace and security of the region.

Have any of these conditions been met? Such sovereignty as Iraq has is gravely marred by the continuous efforts of Iran to direct the course of its internal politics through armed means and otherwise. Iraq is not stable. The Iraqi government has still not been completely formed, and the parties contesting the parliamentary election of early 2010 have not yet come to an agreement on how the state will be run or who will run it. Iraq is not self-reliant. In fact, it will not be able to protect its territory or its airspace. Its government is not “just, representative, and accountable,” but rather heading toward a new authoritarian structure at a time when many Arab states are convulsed by resistance to authoritarianism. The U.S. has not helped Iraq build ties of trade or commerce. Above all, today’s announcement is the definitive renunciation of any attempt to “forge a partnership with the people and government of Iraq.” In other words, the president has failed to achieve any of the objectives that he established as his own policy in February 2009—apart, of course, from withdrawing U.S. military forces.

This failure was not inevitable. When President Obama took office, the U.S. had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq who had just completed, together with the Iraqi Security Forces, driving off Iranian militias and clearing the last bastions of al Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni resistance forces. As he noted in that February 2009 speech, Iraq had just completed provincial elections that were, in fact, “just, representative, and accountable,” and that laid a solid foundation for the transition to a successful Iraqi parliamentary democracy. And, in fact, the parliamentary elections of early 2010 were also in many respects remarkably successful—they were peaceful, heavily-contested, with high participation, and produced the potential for a new political balance in which forces of secularism and cross-sectarianism might well have succeeded. Had the U.S. pursued a determined strategy, using all of the considerable leverage at our disposal, to support the formation of an Iraqi government harnessing that potential, then Iraq’s path could have been very different.

But the Obama administration did not focus on helping Iraq move forward to seize this opportunity, but rather focused on prodding the Iraqis to form a coalition government as rapidly as possible—in order to negotiate a new agreement that would allow American forces to remain in Iraq after the end of this year. In other words, the administration threw away the chance of political progress in Iraq in pursuit of something it has now decided it never wanted to begin with.

Observers of U.S. policy could have been excused for finding all of this rather confusing, but today’s speech resolves any lack of clarity. The president has enunciated the Obama Doctrine: American retreat.

Iraq is the exemplar of this doctrine, but he was at pains to demonstrate its applicability across the board. Indeed, the president boasted that NATO is closing out its Libya mission, success declared with the death of Muammar Qaddafi—the U.S. having abandoned that effort some time ago. He boasted of the reductions of U.S. forces already underway in Afghanistan. And he promised: “make no mistake, [U.S. force levels in Afghanistan] will continue to go down.” Gone is any language about conditions, objectives, goals, American interests, or any of the fundamental principles that Americans have fought so hard to achieve in these wars and throughout our history. American strategy is simply to go home.