As you might guess, I’m usually not a big Frontline fan, given its rather monotonous lefty line on most issues. But I have to take my hat off to Frontline’s Losing Iraq. It presents a very balanced retrospective on events beginning with the fall of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad in 2003. Given the divisiveness of the topic, this is quite an accomplishment.
It is, unsurprisingly, a depressing picture. The bulk of the program focuses on the Bush years, but the most damning parts address the Obama administration’s willful mishandling of a bad but improving situation.
There are few heroes here. Generals Keene and Petraeus come off quite well. Perhaps because they tell their own stories. Rumsfeld and Bremmer come off terribly, which is only accurate. The picture on Bush is very mixed. His misjudgments and mistakes are discussed in full, and there were many: the de-Baathification and disbanding of the Iraqi army stand out. Yes, these were mainly Rumsfeld moves, but Bush signed off. But he is given credit for his courageous decision to double down-or as Petraeus put it, go all in-on the Surge. This redeemed a seemingly hopeless situation, and created the possibility for a good outcome in Iraq. Good by Middle Eastern standards, anyways. Overall, Bush comes off flawed, but human and earnest, and dedicated to doing the best for the country, by his lights. One odd thing is that Colin Powell is completely absent: I don’t even recall his name being mentioned.
One fascinating part relates to Bush and Maliki. Maliki was the accidental leader of Iraq, dredged from obscurity by an administration desperate for an Iraqi face to lead a government so that America could cede control of the country to the locals. Maliki demonstrated some of the tendencies that would later contribute to the current catastrophe, but through a combination of carrots and sticks, and perhaps most importantly, Bush’s personal attention, he was nudged in a more constructive direction and did not indulge his worst sectarian impulses. He wasn’t great, but by the standards of the Middle East, he could have been a lot worse.
Everything changed once Obama assumed office. The most telling scene in the film is from Obama’s speech at Camp Lejeune a mere 4 weeks after assuming office. Obama acknowledged that Iraq had become a passably peaceful place. But instead of understanding that this peace had been hard-won, was incredibly fragile, and required continued American military and political engagement to sustain, Obama asserted that the conditions were now right for the US to withdraw. He treated the peace as an inheritance, an endowment, rather than a tender thing that required continued nurturing.
One could spend much time contemplating why he arrived at this conclusion. It was a convenient excuse for him to do what he wanted-to get shed of Iraq, like yesterday. Moreover, to conclude otherwise would have required him to acknowledge that Bush had been right about the Surge, but as we know, Obama reflexively believed-believes-that everything Bush did was wrong, and perhaps evil.
The documentary points out that everyone in the national security establishment opposed Obama’s decision. Everyone believed that it was imperative for the US to retain military force in the country. But Obama decided otherwise and overruled them all.
The chagrin of the military is vividly captured in the face of Robert Gates when Obama completed his remarks and walked over to shake Gates’s hand. Those on stage during a presidential speech, especially one delivered in triumphal tones, are usually smiling and happy. But Gates’s face was stern and tense. You know he hated being there. You know he believed that Obama was making a tragic mistake. You also know that Obama made a point of seeking him out first to assert his authority, and to make plain to the world that the defense department and the military were going to salute and execute, even though they believed to a man that the policy was a disaster in the making.
The most damning part of Losing Iraq is the recapitulation of the failed attempt to negotiate a Status of Forces agreement with Maliki. Well, failed attempt is not the right phrase, for the documentary makes it clear that Obama had no intention of getting an agreement. He made a demand-that the Iraqi parliament vote to immunize American troops against prosecution-that he knew-knew-could not be met. He made an offer that Iraq had to refuse, which is exactly what Obama wanted, because he wanted out of Iraq, come what may. Iraq of course did refuse, and we are witnessing what has come.
The film quickly covers the aftermath of the American withdrawal. Left completely on his own, Maliki indulged his sectarian devils. He gutted the Iraqi military by placing reliable Shia cronies in all major command posts: the objective was not creating an effective military force, but creating one that would not pose a coup threat. Most crucially, he cut off the Sunni tribes in Anbar, thereby undoing what Petraeus had achieved at such cost. Into that chaos, ISIS plunged, to its profit.
This is why we are where we are. Yes, the invasion of Iraq was a blunder of historic proportions. But after doing the typical American thing of doing the right thing after trying everything else, the situation was stabilized and showed some promise. But Obama threw it all way out of arrogance, pique, and ideological blindness.
Losing Iraq is painful watching, but it is necessary watching if you want to know why we are where we are, and why that is not a good place to be.