Streetwise Professor

June 15, 2014

Obama Wants to Reverse Bush’s Iraq Mistake In the Worst Way, and Has Succeeded

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:15 pm

Jeez, I take off a few days for a conference in Amsterdam, a quick trip to Bern to discuss commodity trading firms with the Swiss government, and some R&R, and the world careens to hell in a rocket propelled hand basket.

During this brief hiatus, Russian tanks and Grad rocket launchers conducted a probe into Ukraine, and a transport plane carrying Ukrainian paratroopers was shot down, killing all aboard. What’s more, the world’s most vicious, brutal, and crazed jihadist group, ISIL (aka ISIS) captured Iraq’s second largest city (Mosul), where it immediately instituted a reign of terror. Not content with this, ISIL surged south, capturing Tikrit, reached the outskirts of Samara, and threatened to assault Baghdad. ISIL captured large quantities of US-supplied weapons and equipment, and bolstered its finances by looting hundreds of millions of dollars from the Mosul branch of the Iraqi central bank.

In response, the Kurdish Peshmerga seized Kirkuk, and the Iranians dispatched three battalions of its Qods force to prop up the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

ISIL’s advance was made possible by the utter collapse of at least two Iraqi army divisions.

Obama’s response? A peevish statement that basically told the Iraqis they are on their own, delivered in front of Marine One before embarking on a-what else?-golfing and fund-raising weekend. Obama blamed (with some justice) Iraq’s government for these developments, and said more about what the US wouldn’t do than what it would. Later it was announced that he would take a few days to figure out what to do, even though during his original statement he said that the developments were not a surprise: if not a surprise, why weren’t contingency plans in place? Why the need to mull over responses to anticipated developments?

Today the US announced that a carrier (the George H. W. Bush) would be dispatched to the Gulf. Perhaps the time to think about what to do was nothing the sort. Perhaps we just didn’t have the resources in place to respond rapidly: that would be a repeat of previous problems, notably Benghazi. (This also illustrates the potential dangers of reducing the US carrier fleet below 11 decks, as some are proposing.)

US airpower could do a great deal to stop ISIL’s advance. The further it drives into the heart of Iraq, the longer its communications and supply lines become. These are vulnerable to air power. Similarly, any ISIL assault on Baghdad or Samara would be at the mercy of precision air ordnance.

Although I doubt that ISIL has the capability to attack Baghdad successfully, especially the face of US airpower, reversing its gains will take brutal, close-in fighting in urban terrain. The best military in the world was able to achieve this at considerable cost in places like Fallujah and Ramadi. I doubt the Iraqi military has either the capability or the will to achieve it. Thus, get ready for ISIL to control an extensive territory in the heart of the Middle East.

The Maliki government supposedly asked for US air support in Mosul, but we declined. Presumably, the experience of the last week will lead to a reversal of such decisions.

But one cannot be sure with Obama, especially where Iraq is concerned. He believes fervently that American involvement there in 2003 was a  colossal error, and has wanted in the worst way to reverse Bush’s mistake, and has succeeded.

Whatever you think about the decision to invade in 2003, it happened. It is a historical fact.

Sunk costs are sunk. You can’t undo what has already been done. You can just deal with the consequences of past decisions-including past mistakes-the best you can.

The US did this in a fashion that brings to mind Churchill’s aphorism that the US always does the right thing, after trying everything else first. After years of missteps, the Surge and the associated Anbar Awakening produced a stable (by Iraqi standards) situation that held out hope for progress in that cursed country. As a result, Obama inherited a manageable situation, which he then proceeded to mismanage in every way possible. He snatched defeat from the jaws of a hard-fought victory, paid for in the blood, sweat, and tears of American soldiers and Marines.

This mismanagement was rooted in Obama’s fixed belief that American involvement in Iraq was a blunder and a sin. Based on this belief, Obama was willing to exit Iraq under almost any terms. Even though it was widely predicted at the time that a complete American withdrawal would create a serious risk of a resurgence of the Sunni terrorists (like ISIL), in part due to the fact that our absence would permit the Shia Maliki to engage in a sectarian purge that would undo everything accomplished in Anbar and elsewhere, Obama single-mindedly pursued a course that ended with the departure of all American troops. He made only a token effort-at best-to negotiate a status of forces agreement that could have allowed Americans to remain in the country. It is arguable that he actually deliberately undermined the achievement of such an agreement.

With the Americans gone, training of Iraq’s army effectively stopped, Iraq’s intelligence capability plummeted, and Maliki pursued his sectarian agenda. All of these factors contributed significantly to the current disaster.

Now Obama is allegedly conditioning the commitment of American air power on the negotiation of more inclusive political arrangements in Baghdad. Yes, such arrangements are necessary to create an Iraq that is not a cockpit for Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish war of all against all. But they will take a long time to negotiate, and the immediate military problem is too pressing to await the completion of such a process. What’s more, political negotiations are unlikely to succeed while the country is under existential threat. This is especially true given that no sane Sunni leader will negotiate while the head choppers of ISIL are in ascendence. ISIL must be cut down substantially before new political arrangements can be crafted. This all means that Obama’s gambit is doomed to failure.

Which may be his intention. He is so inveterately opposed to American involvement in Iraq that I can easily see him imposing impossible to meet conditions in order to preclude US re-engagement.

Obama campaigned in 2012 on the theme that he had ended the war in Iraq. War can never be ended unilaterally, except by surrender. The enemy has a say. And that enemy-ISIL-is now having that say in a very convincing way.

Whatever you think of the situation Obama inherited in 2009, you cannot dispute that he has made it immeasurably worse. America’s two most dangerous enemies in the Middle East-radical Sunni jihadists and the radical Shia Iranian government-have been empowered. Indeed, in his desperation Obama is pursuing direct talks with Iran to coordinate a response to the ISIL threat.

Right now the best we can reasonably hope for is a stalemate, with a de facto division of Iraq, with two segments under control of American enemies.

And this isn’t the sole disaster in the making. There’s Ukraine, too, where American and European pusillanimity are encouraging Putin to pursue his asymmetric warfare strategy.

When I contemplate the further damage that Obama can do in the next two-and-a-half years, I am tempted to go on a permanent hiatus. It is just so discouraging to watch a great nation stumble so badly, all due to the extreme misjudgments of its chief executive. It is perhaps even more discouraging to recognize that despite the evidence of failure that lies wherever one looks, the author of this disaster is utterly convinced that his judgment has been unerring. There are few combinations more dangerous than extreme incompetence, insufferable arrogance, and an unwillingness to acknowledge empirical reality. But Barrack Obama combines those things, by the gross.

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  1. …you forgot to mention that in all likelyhood these guys have US weapons provided to “moderate” Syrian rebells against Assad. Given that we know now what happens when you forcibly remove grown structures in those places, it would be interesting to hear from you whether you are still in favour of intervention in Syria…

    Comment by Viennacapitalist — June 16, 2014 @ 3:55 am

  2. you forgot to mention that in all likelyhood these guys have US weapons provided to “moderate” Syrian rebells against Assad

    Maybe our Prof. is absent minded? Or maybe he looked at the pictures, as I did, and noticed that – like an awful lot of rebels, bandits, and mercenary gangs which the US is accused of arming – they are toting weaponry which originates primarily from Russia (or the Soviet Union) and China. Lots of AK-47s and RPGs, not so many M16s and M60s.

    I’ve taken an interest in this ever since people told me the US armed Saddam Hussein, and then he showed up to battle with MiGs, T-72s, and soldiers carrying AK-47s. Funny things for the US to have sold, one would have thought.

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 16, 2014 @ 7:43 am

  3. @ Tim, the US providing Syrian rebels with weapons was officially acknowledged, at least according to the Wall Street Journal article below…
    …so no need to check the pictures here.
    And my experience with governments is, if something is officially acknowledged, you can bet it has been going on for a long, long time…

    By the way, it is also little surprise to find rebels fight with outdated Soviet weaponry, as anyone who has to do with the former eastern block knows: buying weapons from old army bases is childs play, once you know the right people…(that goes at least for the AKs and smaller weapons, tanks are probably another matter)…
    So the fact that they tout Aks unfortunately doesn’t necessarily mean what you might thing (it also doesn’t rule it out, though)

    Comment by Viennacapitalist — June 16, 2014 @ 9:02 am

  4. Obama’s speech laying out his conditions for approving any military action was clearly to give him an excuse not to do so. It is classic Obama. Is there criticism of the President? Then give a speech that seems to silence that criticism while actually changing nothing. Then when people complain again that nothing has changed or even gotten worse, he whines that he would have acted, but that some other party is to blame.

    Obama certainly inherited a mess. But it is six years past Bush, and he owns the mess now. Some defenders continue to blame Bush, but everyone knew whoever would be President next would have to deal with this. If Obama did not want this responsibility, he shouldn’t have run for President. Churchill didn’t spend WWII blaming everything on Neville Chamberlain despite starting the job literally on the day when Germany attacked France. Instead, he took ownership of the whole thing; the initial defeats (and there were many) as well as the victories. Every President inherits situations they would prefer to be different.

    I am not surprised this is happening now. Not only because the Syrian Civil War has metastasized, but because the bad guys have had a long time now to evaluate Obama in terms of his handling of foreign policy crises. The Syrian red line and lack of effective response in Ukraine were probably heavily discussed before ISIS decided to start major operations in Iraq.

    Comment by Chris — June 16, 2014 @ 10:51 am

  5. Actually, I stand corrected on this point: there are pictures of American weapons in the hands of the jihadists. The informed commentary says that they are most likely to be those handed to the Iraqi Army, which have seemingly never been fired and dropped only once.

    Comment by Tim Newman — June 17, 2014 @ 12:25 am

  6. @Tim
    The photos I have seen suggest the Movers and Sheikhers are armed US while the lowly rank and file terrorists are armed Russian.

    Comment by pahoben — June 17, 2014 @ 1:23 am

  7. @Tim
    Executing innocent people with a shot to the back of the head is cheaper with 7.62×39.

    Comment by pahoben — June 17, 2014 @ 1:26 am

  8. If only the US army could weaponize your hot air, the world would truly tremble at the might of GOP chicken hawks.

    Comment by d — June 17, 2014 @ 1:40 am

  9. So, anyone wants to mention oh-so-convenient timing of all this? Just so to take the the administration’s attention off Ukraine and Crimea?

    Comment by LL — June 17, 2014 @ 5:04 am

  10. Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution provides an interesting overview to the current Iraqi sectarian polarization, and corruption of the al-Maliki government:

    Based on his analysis, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have devloved into a Shia sectarian force/militia, excluding Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds. Consequently, encouraging the US to take the side of the ISF would probably elevate rather than diminish the current Iraqi conflict.


    Comment by Max Pyziur — June 17, 2014 @ 8:29 am

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