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
An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported car-bomb attack by ISIS militants on Monday, October 20. Civil war has destabilized Syria and created an opening for the militant group, which is also advancing in Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. An explosion rocks Kobani, Syria, during a reported car-bomb attack by ISIS militants on Monday, October 20. Civil war has destabilized Syria and created an opening for the militant group, which is also advancing in Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
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
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
>
>>
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 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT