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
Iraqi Shiite militiamen aim their weapons during clashes with ISIS militants in Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraq, on Sunday, September 28. Some of the world's top diplomats <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/15/world/meast/isis-threat/'>have pledged support for Iraq</a>, including military assistance, in its fight against ISIS militants. ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq. Iraqi Shiite militiamen aim their weapons during clashes with ISIS militants in Jurf al-Sakhar, Iraq, on Sunday, September 28. Some of the world's top diplomats have pledged support for Iraq, including military assistance, in its fight against ISIS militants. ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq.
HIDE CAPTION
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
<<
<
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
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
82
83
84
85
86
>
>>
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 10:25 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT