Skip to main content

Did Obama botch the endgame in Iraq?

By David Gergen, CNN Senior Political Analyst and Daniel Katz
updated 11:52 AM EDT, Fri June 27, 2014
Smoke rises during fighting in the Syrian city of Kobani on Monday, October 27. At least 800 people have been killed there in the last 40 days as ISIS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters battle for control of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Smoke rises during fighting in the Syrian city of Kobani on Monday, October 27. At least 800 people have been killed there in the last 40 days as ISIS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters battle for control of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
HIDE CAPTION
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gergen, Katz: Reason for Iraq's crumbling could give clue to preventing same in Afghanistan
  • Bush administration mostly to blame for wrong calls after launching Iraq Warn, they say
  • How after U.S. troops left, did Iraq tumble to civil war? Some blame Obama missteps
  • Writers: U.S. left no residual force, Maliki was uncooperative, Obama wanted it over with

Editor's note: David Gergen is a senior political analyst for CNN and has been an adviser to four presidents. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a professor of public service and director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Follow him on Twitter at @david_gergen. Daniel Katz, his research assistant, is a graduate of Brandeis University.The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the authors.

(CNN) -- "How did it all begin?"

Exactly a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy stood before students and recalled how in 1914, Prince Bulow of Germany asked that question of the German Chancellor as Europe slid into a catastrophic world war. The chancellor wearily replied, "Ah, if one only knew."

David Gergen
David Gergen
Daniel Katz
Daniel Katz

Today, as we watch the fracturing of Iraq, we would be wise to ask a different question: "How does one end a war?" The answer remains elusive, but Iraq is quickly becoming a case study in how not to do it. And unless we learn from this experience, Afghanistan could well be next.

Unfortunately, as Gideon Rose shows in his 2010 book, "How Wars End," this is not the first time we've fumbled the end of a war. He argues that the U.S. has often gone wrong because it failed to leave a sustainable postwar structure in place, citing the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, a prolonged conflict and then stalemate in Korea, the chaos in Vietnam, and so on.

In this case, the administration that launched the Iraq war deserves the lion's share of blame for how badly it has gone. A case can be made that former President George W. Bush's team was misled by faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, but they were the ones who made the wrong calls on going in with too few troops and then disbanding the Iraqi army, turning the country into a cauldron of sectarian hatreds and violence.

But after the 2007 troop surge, the Bush team could also make a credible argument they left an Iraq that was fairly stable and had a decent chance at self-governance. President Barack Obama himself proclaimed in 2011 as he withdrew the last American troops, "We're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq."

So how did Iraq then tumble into a civil war? How come no top official in Washington saw it coming or appreciated how quickly Sunni jihadists would seize control of a third of the country? Could the U.S. have prevented the breakup?

Syria strikes Iraq
Will more U.S. advisers in Iraq help?
Iraq's leader welcomes Syrian airstrikes

Speaking with military and national security leaders who have retired in the past few years, one finds a unanimous view that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was the one who blew it since American troops left him fully in charge. Forcing Sunnis and Kurds out of power, establishing an authoritarian, corrupt and often brutal Shia regime, and filling the ranks of his American trained army with cronies and incompetents, al-Maliki invited a rebellion. That's why recent U.S. military leaders think al-Maliki has to go -- immediately!

But these same leaders believe there was a chance -- no guarantees but a chance -- that if the United States had left behind a strong residual force under a status-of-forces agreement, the current disaster might have been avoided.

For one thing, a U.S. force on the ground would have sent a clear signal to insurgents not to mess with things. For another, the U.S. would have kept better intelligence and could more easily head off trouble. Just as important, a top U.S. general, speaking for the President, would have been whispering into al-Maliki's ear. U.S. commanders over the years -- from Petraeus to Odierno -- found this direct line of communication vital to keeping al-Maliki on a reform path and away from power consolidation.

The story of why we failed to leave behind a residual force has been well told elsewhere. One of the best sources is the 2013 book "The Endgame" by Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor. This past week, Peter Beinart provided an excellent autopsy in a piece for The Atlantic. Beinart's is the more surprising as he attacks the Obama administration from a liberal vantage point.

Gordon and Trainor report that Obama's top military leadership -- Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others -- wanted to keep a residual force and thought anything less than 16,000 troops would be insufficient. But they ran into resistance on two fronts. The Prime Minister wanted Americans out; al-Maliki had designs of his own for the exercise of power. The Obama White House has long argued that it was al-Maliki who scuppered any deal.

As accounts like those of Gordon and Trainor along with Beinart have shown, however, the White House was always half-hearted about pushing. The President was skeptical of his military advisers and apparently sympathetic to political advisers who wanted to get out of Iraq pronto -- and certainly before the 2012 elections. So, Obama overruled recommendations from his military leaders and presented the Iraqis with a plan for 3,500 continuous troops. Squabbles broke out between both sides and eventually an agreement fell apart.

If Obama was unhappy, he had a strange way of showing it. In the run-up to elections in 2012, he traversed the campaign trail celebrating the fulfillment of his promise to pull every last troop out of Iraq.

We will never know for sure whether a residual American force would have saved Iraq as a sovereign, stable nation -- what it seemed when we left. Sectarian hatreds there run back centuries, and ultimately they must take responsibility for their own destinies. We can't save people who won't save themselves.

But it would not be surprising if in his next edition, Gideon Rose adds to his chapter on Iraq and repeats his argument that America's wars have often ended badly when we fail to put in place a sustainable postwar structure before we leave.

The looming question is whether we will now make the same mistake in Afghanistan. After all, the President has now declared that all American troops will be out of there in 2016 -- just by coincidence, of course, the same year as the next presidential election.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT