Since I was one of the first to try to write about the war in Iraq with some historical perspective , as well as one of the first to predict the success of the Petraeus surge (“How To Win in Iraq–and How To Lose,” Commentary, April 2007), I thought I’d take a stab at having the final word on the war’s tenth anniversary.
First, while many commentators this last week compared Iraq with Vietnam, the biggest similarity between the two conflicts is that, once again, Democrats were happy to push a war before bailing on it. It was Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, who declared, “Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas, or biological weapons” on December 16, 1998, while announcing a four day air bombing campaign to take out Saddam’s suspected WMD sites, and Clinton who authorized regime change in Iraq with his Iraq Liberation Act, and whose Pentagon in 1996 drew up the first plans for an invasion of Iraq.
Likewise, it was Senator Hillary Clinton who said after 9/11, “The time has come for decisive action to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s WMD’s,” and who joined more than half of the Senate’s Democrats, including John Kerry and Joseph Biden, in voting to authorize President Bush “to defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” and to enforce all relevant UN Security Council resolutions.
Second, Iraq’s biggest difference from Vietnam was that it’s a war we won twice. The first was General Tommy Frank’s Operation Iraqi Freedom launched on March 21, 2003, which military historian John Keegan described as one of the most successful campaigns on record. The second was the Petraeus surge that got underway in February 2007 (by which time, of course, virtually every Democrat who had authorized the war in Iraq had turned against it).
In between, our military had to undergo a staggering shift in strategic and operational thinking, from the Blitzkrieg-style war of mass mechanized forces backed by air power that won Iraqi Freedom, to the surge’s counterinsurgency strategy involving small-unit tactics, close cooperation with local civilians, and building things like roads and schools instead of blowing them up.
It’s hard to think of any military force in history that’s made so sharp a transition successfully while in the field, in so short a time. Yet that’s what our armed forces did.
Third, the president whose reputation is going to suffer most in future anniversaries of the war in Iraq won’t be George W. Bush, but Barack Obama.
President Bush left him with a war won (at a hard cost), a country liberated and pacified, and a pluralist democracy taking root–the first in the Arab world. In almost the time it took Bush to turn the Iraqi war around, Obama has managed to squander most of that legacy. He muffed the Status of Forces agreement with Prime Minister Nouri Al- Maliki (probably on purpose), thus ensuring that no substantive US forces remain in country, either to help secure the Iraqi peace or restrain its neighbor, Iran.
Instead, Obama has sat back and let Iran’s influence grow and Al Qaeda’s rebound, even as the car bombings become more numerous and the growing political infighting in Baghdad threatens the country’s democratic future. Now Secretary of State Kerry can’t even get Al-Maliki to look for the arms Iran is sending to Syria’s Assad through Iraqi airspace, let alone intercept them.
James Thurber used to say the saddest words in the English language were, “too late.” It may still not be too late for Iraq, but it is for those Americans who gave their lives in a long war so that good could prevail over evil.
All it takes is the wrong person in the Oval Office to guarantee the opposite result.