Shadow Government

The myth of Obama's perfect record in Iraq

Greg Gause, an old grad student friend and one of the country's leading Middle East experts, takes a swing at me today over on FP's Middle East channel objecting to a piece I wrote about Biden's statements in the VP debate.

Gause is a good man (who was our only decent low-post threat on our grad basketball team) and is usually a thoughtful commentator, so I found his piece somewhat odd. Perhaps he unwittingly revealed his approach in his opening line: "When a presidential campaign is in full swing, we probably should not be surprised that the challenger's team throws everything and the kitchen sink at the incumbent."

Switch the words incumbent and challenger in that sentence and you have Gause's blogpost in a nutshell, alas.

My original piece made three short claims:

1. Biden was wrong to mock Ryan for saying we would have been better off with a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that allowed for a substantial stay-behind force since that was precisely what Biden was seeking to negotiate. The military was hoping Biden would secure that SOFA and, in mocking Ryan, Biden was antagonizing the military, giving them reason to believe that the Obama team never was serious about negotiations.

2. Biden was wrong to pretend that it was the military rather than the civilian political leadership that decided on the arbitrary withdrawal timeline in Afghanistan.

3. Biden was wrong to pretend that it was the military rather than the civilian political leadership that decided on the deep cuts to the defense budget.

My piece was about the civil-military challenges that arise when political leadership order the military to do things that the military has advised against and then hide behind the military's obedience rather than accept responsibility for their own decisions.

Gause engages none of that. He doesn't rebut me by arguing the military welcomed Biden's comments. He doesn't rebut me by arguing that Biden's claims were actually correct.

Instead of engaging that argument, Gause pretends my piece was a claim that the Iraqis were irrelevant to the negotiations or that it would have been easy for Maliki to deliver on the SoFA. Of course, I do not make either claim. Following in the footsteps of his champion, Gause creates a strawman version of my argument -- "Feaver says it is all about us" -- and in the process of rebutting that, appears to advance an extraordinary claim of his own, namely that the actions of the Obama team were irrelevant to what happened in Iraq.

Gause devotes considerable effort to arguing that once Maliki wrested sole power from Allawi in the 2010 election, the failure of the SOFA negotiations was a foregone conclusion.

Gause may be right about the counterfactual, though it is curious that Gause doesn't mention that Vice President Biden made precisely the opposite boast. According to Michael Gordon: "Mr. Biden also predicted that the Americans could work out a deal with a government led by Mr. Maliki. 'Maliki wants us to stick around because he does not see a future in Iraq otherwise,' Mr. Biden said. 'I'll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA' he added, referring to the Status of Forces Agreement the Obama administration hoped to negotiate."

Gause doesn't mention that because his piece is not about what Obama did or did not do. In Gause's world, only Iraqi actors matter (at least from 2008 on -- one wonders whether Gause would have considered U.S. actions before, say, 20 January 2009, to have consequence and therefore be worth analyzing and perhaps even critiquing.) The closest Gause comes to evaluating Obama's actions is one throwaway sentence: "One might criticize the Obama administration for not being more active in trying to broker an Allawi and Maliki coalition in the first place."

One might indeed, but Gause apparently is not one to do so.

Let me be clear: Gause may be right that once Maliki held on to the top spot in Iraq, there was little to no chance for a SOFA deal. But that doesn't justify Biden's mocking dismissal of the proposal for a stay behind force in Iraq in the VP debate. And it certainly does not excuse the raft of errors the administration made in 2009 and 2010 that perhaps contributed to the political stalemate we confronted in Iraq in 2011.

Over the last four years, I and my Shadow Government colleagues have documented many of these mistakes. I could not possibly list them all here, but a partial list I compiled for a different project would include:

  • President Obama invested minimal personal capital, abandoning the leader-to-leader-cultivated relationship that the Bush administration prioritized.
  • The administration lead was Vice-President Biden, a person of considerable stature, but who had to overcome an especially high hurdle before he could win the trust of the Iraqis because of his earlier proposal to divide up Iraq.
  • Obama's initial country team in Iraq never achieved the unity of effort of the Petraeus-Crocker team.
  • Once a competent negotiating team was assembled, the administration appeared to undercut it with deliberate leaks about the likely failure of negotiations.
  • The theory that convincing Iraqis we would leave would elicit cooperative behavior proved flawed. Prime Minister Maliki was even less cooperative with the Obama Administration than he had been with Bush.
  • The State Department never adequately resourced nor planned for the daunting post-war mission its own strategy required.
  • The sdministration talked only of ending the Iraq war, and made little effort to mobilize political support at home or abroad for any follow-on policy to secure the gains that we and the Iraqis had together won at great cost.
  • Finally, some would argue that the president did not really want to leave meaningful numbers of troops in Iraq and so the administration never seriously pursued a SOFA, only going through the motions.

Many of those pertain to the period of time before Maliki renewed his hold on the leadership post and so happened when even Gause appears to believe that the SOFA outcome was not a foregone conclusion.

But Gause does not address any of those (or other critiques) in his piece. Instead, he pretends that identifying any misstep by the Obama administration is tantamount to arguing that what happens in the Middle East is "all about us." Why is that?

Gause is a good man trying to make an impossible case. He seems bent on arguing that Obama has been perfect and has made no foreign policy missteps whatsoever, and anyone who points out an Obama misstep should be dismissed as a partisan hack.

As a friend of mine might say, if this were just the "lacuna in one academic's analysis, it would not be much interest." However, it appears to be a pattern with Obama supporters. Why are they unable to concede the possibility that there might be a situation in the world -- any situation -- that might be worse because of actions Obama took or did not take?

And why are they unwilling to candidly acknowledge the civil-military challenges that their actions have deepened?

Alex Wong/Getty Images

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