Max Boot reviews “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama.”
Obama’s shameful, indifferent neglect of Iraq gets very little notice in the media.
Bush had a weekly teleconference with Maliki. Guess how often Obama called.
…Like all victories, the surge had many fathers. Messrs. Gordon and Trainor amply chronicle the valor of the frontline troops, but they also single out some unsung heroes who operated behind the scenes. Col. Derek Harvey, for example, an intelligence officer who was warning as early as 2004 that the situation was much worse than the official assessments claimed and arguing that it was imperative to reach out to the Sunni tribes. Or another intelligence officer, Lt. Col. Nicholas “Nycki” Brooks, who in 2006 was telling superiors of the need to clear insurgents from the “belts” surrounding Baghdad, a key part of the strategy that was eventually adopted. Yet another hero is former Sen. Chuck Robb, who, virtually alone among members of the 2006 Iraq Study Group led by Lee Hamilton and James Baker, championed the idea of sending additional troops to Iraq.
Messrs. Gordon and Trainor are less kind to the Obama administration, which came into office at a time when violence was falling as a result of the surge. On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama had opposed the surge, and the authors give the new administration credit for “backtracking on its unrealistic campaign promise to remove combat forces within sixteen months.” But they are highly critical of a range of other decisions, starting with the appointment of Christopher Hill, a diplomat with no experience in the Arab world, as the ambassador in Baghdad. (The job was first offered to, and accepted by, retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, but then, for reasons the authors cannot explain, the offer was rescinded.)
Mr. Hill was a disastrous choice. He clashed both with Iraqi officials and with Gen. Raymond Odierno, the senior U.S. military commander, with whom he developed a “toxic and dysfunctional” relationship. While his successful predecessor, Ryan Crocker, saw his job as working closely with the military to push Iraqi politics in a constructive direction, Mr. Hill adopted a hands-off attitude, trying to treat Iraq like a “normal” country even as it was mired in a lengthy stalemate over the formation of a new government following the inconclusive election of 2010. Mr. Hill sneered at Gen. Odierno’s attempts, Messrs. Trainor and Gordon write, “to neutralize, or at least attenuate, the ‘drivers of instability,’ those factors that had the potential to unhinge Iraq.”
When Mr. Hill and his superiors in the Obama administration finally got involved in trying to create a new government, they wound up pushing for Nouri al-Maliki’s retention as prime minister—ironically, the result that Iran was also pursuing. As one Iraqi politician joked, “the Axis of Evil and the Great Satan appeared to be backing the same candidate.” Mr. Obama tried to find a senior job for Ayad Allawi, the secular Shiite whose party had won the most seats in the election, but his clumsy intervention accomplished nothing. “Compared to Bush’s weekly videoconferences with Maliki,” the authors note, “Obama’s direct role with Iraq’s leaders was minimal.” Vice President Joe Biden, the administration’s point man on Iraq, had more direct contact, but his understanding was so limited that he told aides in 2010: “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement].”
Today, the SOFA has expired, and Mr. Maliki is more firmly entrenched than ever. The prime minister’s compliant courts recently passed down a death sentence on the Sunni vice president, Tariq Hashemi, based on evidence allegedly gathered by torturing his bodyguards. Mr. Hashemi has fled to Turkey, but his fellow Sunnis aren’t standing by idly while a militant Shiite with close links to Iran accumulates all the power in Baghdad. Al Qaeda in Iraq, which had been all but defeated by 2008, has risen from the grave to perpetuate fresh atrocities. On Sept. 9, the very day that Mr. Hashemi’s sentence was handed down, at least 100 people died across Iraq in a series of terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, Iran is using Iraqi airspace to send airplanes full of weapons to the Assad regime in Syria.
This dismaying outcome might have been averted if U.S. troops were still present in Iraq. Messrs. Gordon and Trainor show, however, how little interest Mr. Obama had in extending any troop presence past 2011. While military commanders judged that they would need at least 16,000 troops to advise and assist Iraqi forces, Obama was willing to send fewer than 5,000; and when Iraqi officials raised predictable objections to Washington’s demands for complete immunity from prosecution for U.S. troops, Mr. Obama didn’t try to finesse the issue. Instead he pulled the plug on the negotiations and embraced a total pullout. By failing to consolidate the gains won by our troops, the president appears well on his way to seizing defeat from the jaws of a hard-won victory.