The Price of Success

Contrary to Peter Beinart and Walter Russell Mead I think that President Obama’s policy with respect to Iraq has been a tremendous success. It has succeeded in its objectives. Barack Obama has been elected to the presidency twice and only one American soldier has been killed in Iraq since 2011.

Peter Beinart:

But sooner or later, honest liberals will have to admit that Obama’s Iraq policy has been a disaster. Since the president took office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has grown ever more tyrannical and ever more sectarian, driving his country’s Sunnis toward revolt. Since Obama took office, Iraq watchers—including those within his own administration—have warned that unless the United States pushed hard for inclusive government, the country would slide back into civil war. Yet the White House has been so eager to put Iraq in America’s rearview mirror that, publicly at least, it has given Maliki an almost-free pass. Until now, when it may be too late.

Walter Russell Mead:

Welcome to President Obama’s brave new world. After six years in office pursuing strategies he believed would tame the terror threat and doing his best to reassure the American people that the terror situation was under control, with the “remnants” of al-Qaeda skittering into the shadows like roaches when the exterminator arrives, Obama now confronts the most powerful and hostile jihadi movement of modern times, a movement that dances on the graveyard of his hopes.

I think they’re losing sight of the bigger picture. President Obama acted as Candidate Obama promised. Had he acted differently he probably would not have been re-elected. They are demanding that President Obama act completely inconsistently with how American politicians act.

If it does not work out well either for the Iraqis, our allies, or for us, it simply reaffirms H. L. Mencken’s definition of democracy, i.e. the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

34 comments… add one
  • ...

    I expect “honest” liberals to admit that Obama is failing with his Iraq policy around the same time I expect “honest” conservatives to admit Bush failed with his.

  • jan

    If you define “success” as following one’s ideological perspective to some preordained conclusion, then I would agree that everything revolving around Obama’s personal preset world view was “successful.”

    However, life doesn’t function in a staged vacuum. What might seem like an ideal strategy or goal one moment, can be upended by unforeseen problems in another. Great leaders are usually flexible ones, able to alter and change course when circumstances call for it.

    In the case of a 2011 Iraq, military leaders saw the need to keep upwards of 20,000 men in place, in order to satisfactorily oversee continuing stability in that region. The minimum military contingency was eventually ratcheted down to 10,000. Obama, though, steadfastly stuck to an unreasonable 3,000 number, a manpower investment which many say was an insult to Maliki — acting as a disincentive for him to ever agree to giving immunity as a part of an amended SOFA.

    Consequently, while Obama may have successfully kept his 2008 political promises, he failed to take into consideration the concerns of his experts in the region. He also tepidly sought and ultimately failed to diplomatically construct a mutually viable SOFA with Maliki, someone already known to be terribly flawed. Instead, with ideological blinders on, an immature Iraq was left to fend on it’s own, under the auspices of poor government leadership, rudderless and basically defenseless from reverting back to what it once was.

    IMO, we paid a stiff price for Obama’s so-called “successful” agenda.

  • Andy

    I think I lot of people are used to the idea that politicians say one thing to get elected and then do something else when they reach office – particularly when it comes to foreign policy. So I think many people on the right and left were surprised when the President did not do what they expected and instead, mostly did what he promised. For example, a lot of people on the progressive left thought the President’s campaign pledges about Afghanistan during the 2008 election were just to make him look tough and they expected him to withdraw from Afghanistan once elected.

    And now that the President doesn’t have to worry about campaign promises anymore, I think a lot of people, particularly on the right, expect him to do what the Washington Consensus dictates, which he isn’t doing. Of course the policy recommendations from the Washington Consensus are so full of dissonance and fantastical thinking that it’s good that he’s ignoring them.

    On the other hand, to be perfectly frank, I don’t really understand what his policy is or what we’re trying to achieve or prevent (beyond the immediate need to at least keep the Iraqi security forces up long enough to do a NEO, if it comes to that). And I can sympathize because it’s a tough problem, especially when viewed through the lens of domestic politics where we can’t help the Syrian government or their interests, we can’t help the Iranians or their interests, we can’t help ISIS, we can’t help the Kurds too much and everyone realizes the problems with Maliki and the shiites.

    Historically, we’ve always sought to balance various factions and countries against each other to maintain low and stable level of violence and conflict, but the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the consequential destruction of Saddam’s Iraq, and the Arab Spring made it nearly impossible to return to that policy of stability through regional competition. Our tools and methods to maintain a balance which brought stability no longer work.

    And so we dither along, not quite sure what to do since there are no good options that we can see. But the Washington Consensus demands that something must be done – after all, we are the USA and how can we, with all our power and influence, not be steering events?

  • michael reynolds

    I can’t help but notice that like the useless Mr. Mead, none of you seems to have a batter idea for how to deal with Iraq.

  • ...

    I’ll note that I didn’t spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get to decide what to do in Iraq. And I certainly didn’t do that twice. I also didn’t brag about the stability of Iraq when troops got pulled out. I don’t get paid to know what to do, nor to advise the President. And I certainly don’t have the entirety of the US Federal government executive branch backing me and helping me to make and execute policy. So what’s the President’s excuse?

    I also don’t think praising whatever the President chooses to do (or not do in this case) constitutes making a useful policy recommendation.

  • As I have said any number of times, I’m not comfortable offering advice on what to do until I know what we’re trying to accomplish and why. I think that Mr. Beinart and Dr. Mead are assuming certain objectives which the president probably doesn’t agree with. It’s not surprising that they’re upset.

  • jan

    I agree there are lots of different voices but few real solutions offered in how to deal with Iraq. However, both Bush and Obama can be indicted for contributing to today’s ME chaos by the lack of seeing beyond the scope of their initially-set goals.

    Bush failed to quickly and wisely deal with a post-invasion plan. In fact, his main man, Bremer, made things worse, not better. The 2007 surge, somewhat averaged out these earlier mistakes, so that when Obama took office there seemed to be more mending than tearing apart going on in Iraq. Bush also had the good sense, to keep Maliki on a tighter leash via the constant advisory support going on between him and the then ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. Because of this “diplomatic outreach/input” the Iraqi government and it’s military continued to have both Sunni and Shiiti representation.

    That all changed in 2011, when Maliki was left to his own sectarian ambitions, without any US involvement — and that’s exactly where Obama’s lack of insight, and policy rigidity came into play. The frail Iraqi peace, if you will, was under duress after the US pulled up stakes and left Iraq unattended — much like leaving an adolescent to make good decisions in the wake of a parent walking out on them.

    Carrying this same analogy to what is happening currently in Iraq, if an unmonitored child goes askew, the bigger the problems he creates for himself the less likely outside assistance will help. The same thing, IMO, applies to Iraq today. The signs and symptoms of Iraq unraveling, of ISIS gaining momentum, were ignored until everything exploded and cities were taken over by extremists. I think there is little we can do now, but watch, cringe and regret that even a controversial war like Iraq was given so little afterthought to at least preserve a little of what had been accomplished.

  • jan

    Another example of the WH not listening.

    The prime minister of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Nechirvan Barzani, says he warned Baghdad and the United States months ago about the threat ISIS posed to Iraq and the group’s plan to launch an insurgency across Iraq. The Kurds even offered to participate in a joint military operation with Baghdad against the jihadists.

    Washington didn’t respond—

  • CStanley

    I think implicit in the political goals of the president though is the idea that he thought it would all work out when we disengaged. And somewhat implicit in voter’s wishes is that they expect to elect someone competent enough in leadership to stay engaged, determine if a course correction is necessary, and then make the case to the voters that the change (from the actions promised in the campaign) is needed.

  • ...

    I think it is also pertinent to point out that our current President holds his office in large part because he claimed he knew what to do in Iraq. Smugly pointing out that a bunch of obscure commenters on a small blog don’t know what to do either is really completely beside the point.

  • michael reynolds


    I realize the lie-du-jour in the right-wing media that provide your daily brainwashing is that the surge solved everything. It’s a nonsense.

    The effective part of the surge was widespread bribery of Sunni tribes, which, along with their irritation with Al Qaeda made them our temporary allies. Temporary allies until – following Mr. Bush’s plan – we turned control over to Mr. Bush’s handpicked pal, Nuri al-Maliki who went on to alienate all our carefully bought-and-paid-for Sunni allies.

    By the way, the 10,000 we proposed leaving in Iraq were not combat troops. (Mr. BUsh had already said we’d remove all combat troops, remember?) They’d have been trainers. Given the effectiveness of our training of Iraqi troops, I’m not really sure what they’d have accomplished – aside of course from attracting the attentions of every asshole with an IED.

  • michael reynolds

    He did know what to do in Iraq: he got us the hell out. I hope he keeps us the hell out, except insofar as our good offices can be employed to manage this now-inevitable partition of Iraq.

  • michael reynolds

    As I have said any number of times, I’m not comfortable offering advice on what to do until I know what we’re trying to accomplish and why.

    That is pretty weak.

    The fact is there is no good answer. You’re complaining but have no better answer because no better answer exists.

    As for Mr. Mead being upset. Andrew Sullivan helpfully links to Mr. Mead circa 2003 when all this fun was just beginning:

    Morally, politically, financially, containing Iraq is one of the costliest failures in the history of American foreign policy. Containment can be tweaked — made a little less murderous, a little less dangerous, a little less futile — but the basic equations don’t change. Containing Hussein delivers civilians into the hands of a murderous psychopath, destabilizes the whole Middle East and foments anti-American terror — with no end in sight. This is disaster, not policy. It is time for a change.

    Maybe I missed the part where Mead did a mea culpa. He’s now complaining about the results of the very policies he promoted.

  • That is pretty weak.

    The fact is there is no good answer.

    Nonsense. It’s the only responsible answer to so vague a question.

  • PD Shaw

    “President Obama acted as Candidate Obama promised. Had he acted differently he probably would not have been re-elected.”

    I’m not sure about that. Obama initially committed to negotiating to keep 10,000 troops, so at least the idea of keeping combat troops in Iraq was not a problem at one time. Maybe he had second thoughts, or maybe (as I strongly suspect) he subconsciously sabotaged the deal so that the 10,000 troop commitment is a figment. If he consciously sabotaged the talks (by waiting too late and changing the American position), then Obama was at least motivated by the goal of plausible deniability if bad things happened.

  • jan

    “I realize the lie-du-jour in the right-wing media that provide your daily brainwashing is that the surge solved everything. It’s a nonsense.”

    As usual, Michael, hyperbole is the tool most often used by you to converse with opposing POVs. For example, I didn’t say the surge solved anything. It mediated a worsening situation and made it more stable, that’s all. However, the decision to do it, one opposed by the then Senator Obama, was more fruitful than anything President Obama has ever done in both the Iraq and Afghanistan theatres.

  • PD:

    There have been so many reports from so many different sources that the president has added or changed requirements in negotiations at the last minute to believe it’s anything but at the very least a bad habit. I don’t think it’s deliberate sabotage. I can only suspect that he thinks it’s tough bargaining.

  • ...

    There have been so many reports from so many different sources that the president has added or changed requirements in negotiations at the last minute to believe it’s anything but at the very least a bad habit. I don’t think it’s deliberate sabotage. I can only suspect that he thinks it’s tough bargaining.

    Then why did he not negotiate at all on the Bergdahl release? Allegedly the Taliban came with an offer, said “Take it or leave it”, and he said, “I’ll take it!” No last minute negotiations or ever first minute negotiations when it came to releasing the five highest ranking Taliban officers we had. Did he just not want to be tough with the Taliban?

  • ...

    I hope he keeps us the hell out, except insofar as our good offices can be employed to manage this now-inevitable partition of Iraq.

    First, he’s going back in, after the Administration, through the Defense Department, said that under no circumstances would more ground troops be sent in. So he’s already failing by your first clause.

    Not doubt he’s distracted by all the efforts he’s putting into destroying evidence at the IRS and dissolving our southern borders and giving away Taliban leaders. And looking for a house in Palm Springs. Hard work, all that, especially with all the rounds of golf he’s working in. Damn, he’s working harder than Drew is on that last front.

  • Modulo Myself

    What Obama can’t say is that the ruling class dream of having unlimited militarism and occupation of foreign countries is not doable without a draft. Yet nobody suggests a draft, because it would incredibly unpopular. They just want troops to appear by magic. So the whole the dream can’t happen, but you can’t say that it can’t happen, because that would require suggesting the crazed militaristic side might be composed of cowards and blowhards.

  • TastyBits


    President Bush had to be dragged to the surge all the while kicking and screaming. He took months dithering over the decision, but somehow, this has been tossed down the memory hole.

  • TastyBits

    The crisis in Iraq is the result of knocking off Gaddafi and supporting the Syrian terrorists. The correct course of action would have been for the US to support its rat, and stay out of Syria. Assad could have cleaned up this mess in a few weeks.

  • jan

    “President Bush had to be dragged to the surge all the while kicking and screaming. He took months dithering over the decision, but somehow, this has been tossed down the memory hole.”

    Tasty, that’s not how I remembered how the 2007 surge went down. And, after consulting Wikipedia that’s not how they see it either. In fact, as I remember Bush had to deal with resistance from others to put more troops into Iraq — basically going against the grain of many in Congress. His so-called “dithering” amounted to consulting others, and taking into consideration their opinions before making the decision on what to do.

  • TastyBits


    Iraq went to shit long before the surge, and for at least six months, Senator McCain and others urged President Bush to surge troops in Iraq. President Bush could have ordered the surge whenever he thought the time was right.

    Apparently, he thought the time was when Iraq was almost totally in the toilet. There was substantial doubt whether he would order the surge. I guess this was a head fake to fool the terrorists into think they were winning.

    If I understand correctly, President Bush took months because he was “consulting” over the Iraq surge, but President Obama took months because he was “dithering” over the Afghanistan surge.

    President Bush was, is, and always will be a dove no matter how tough he talks. He never had the stomach to accomplish his goals, and frankly, you and your crew do not have the stomach either.

    Gaddafi was an important US intelligence asset, and now in his place is a failed country and terrorist haven. Somehow, nobody on your side seems to have a problem with this. Why?

  • PD Shaw

    Dave: “I don’t think it’s deliberate sabotage.”

    I think that is the least likely explanation. The worst criticism in your links is this from Mead: “There is also the question of whether the earnest White House types who have piled up such a disastrous record in the Middle East could negotiate their way into a used car lot, much less handle a complex negotiation involving Russia, Iran, Assad, and a bunch of other canny operators.”

    On the issue of extending troop commitments to Iraq, the Administration appeared to be arguing with itself on the proper position to take. Once the proper position is taken, they then sought to dictate it to Maliki or persuade him of its universal justness. So they were losing time, arguing from changing positions, not interests, and signaling to Maliki that the U.S. would have his back anyway. Too often, the Administration seems to lock into a position, without considering going bigger or going smaller when negotiations falter.

  • jan

    Tasty, the Iraq war went from bad to worse over the course of the initial invasion in 2003, up until the effects of the 2007 surge. During this time span the public and Congressional mood changed as well — from having a majority of Americans and a bipartisan Congress supporting it, to a majority of people railing against it and the democrats in Congress turning in their hawk credentials and becoming doves.

    By the time the midterms elections rolled around in 2006, the GOP was where the dems are today — in the dumpster — and they suffered heavy Congressional losses, including the House. As you know, having both arms of Congress under the opposition party’s control makes it more difficult for a WH to develop and implement strategies and policies — unless you have a pen and phone like the current executive branch is doing. So, that’s why planning and going forward with the surge was less a proposition of “dithering,” than making one’s way carefully through the briar patch of those who didn’t want to invest any more troops or money in what was considered a failed and fickle war. My memory has it that Bush went ahead anyway, taking a huge political risk, by approving the surge — one that would have harshly backfired on him, even more than committing to the Iraq War in the first place has done, had it not been successful.

  • jan

    The Obama foreign policy has finally been decrypted!

  • PD Shaw

    @Elipses, I believe the Clinton people leaked that she had sought to negotiate a similar but “tougher” deal, but the Taliban wouldn’t agree to guarantees. She had also tried to “go bigger,” by making it part of a larger reconciliation agreement. The Taliban wouldn’t budge, so she called off talks. I suspect at this time, the Administration sought alternatives to a negotiated outcome, by sending troops to find him. Some may have died in the process, so we may have stumbled into a failure to appreciate the sunk cost fallacy. Not a bad story so far; assuming that Clinton isn’t just positioning herself as the tougher, more pragmatic Obama.

    But nobody should ever announce that its U.S. policy that we don’t leave people behind. First of all, its a lie. Second of all, you’ve tried to make your own difficult task as President of today, much harder for Presidents of tomorrow. We have long-term interests in discouraging hostage-takers and reducing expectations of their demand. We have interests in stopping the Taliban insurgency and the Taliban isn’t going to normalize its activities, the war continues with or without us, and with or without their leaders in our jails.

  • TastyBits


    Replace Bush with Obama and Iraq with Afghanistan, and you would be an Obama supporter.

    When the patient is about to die you, “start the breathing; stop the breathing, and treat for shock.” Apparently, President Bush decided to call for a committee to determine what to do, and then he had to build public support to save the patient.

    No. A leader leads. A leader does not whine about why he is going to fail. He figures out what it takes to win, and he makes it happen. It was a risk for President Bush because he was finished with the Iraq war at that time. A real leader would not have considered the political ramifications of a military outcome.

  • Guarneri

    Sometimes our companies get in trouble. We don’t have immediate answers. I can tell you what we do, do. We ask ourselves “what did we do wrong?” Only then can you move on. Contrary to the first comment in this thread, Republicans effed up going in. So did certain prominent Democrats.

    I can also tell you that Obama’s strategy has been a total failure, comments that “there was nothing to be done” aside. Balls. There is always something to be done.

    I’m at total wits end. I think Iraq may have been savable at one point. Not sure now. It may be time to implement a holding action, and get our house in order for securing oil supply and a terrorist defense. Thanks, Barry, the basketball guru, we are down twenty in the second half with no plan.

  • jan

    “I’m at total wits end. I think Iraq may have been savable at one point.”

    In 2009 Iraq was at least stable and having ‘free’ elections. However, being a newly formed government it needed to be closely monitored in order to continue on the road to keeping some form of inherent equilibrium. Pulling out all the troops, though, was akin to pulling out the props that helped to keep it steady. Now, with the erupting chaos I really don’t see what we can do. It’s gone too far back to fix and pull upright again.

    And, for the Obama administration to say that it was caught by surprise is a lie — pure and simple. More and more info is surfacing that it was appraised of the fomenting situation and chose to ignore it until the region lit up with extremists, taking over the very areas that had been won by sacrificing American lives and limbs.

    I really can’t remember being so angry by what is happening…..

  • TastyBits


    I fail to understand why 2009 is the magic year. In 2003, Iraq was very stable, and in 2014, Iraq was stable until the Arab Spring destabilized them.

    Assad could fix this problem in a few weeks. He may need some clandestine help from US air power, but the terrorist problem will be eliminated with extreme prejudice.

    Oh wait, your crew does not do dictators. You all only do democracy. According to your crew’s delusion, Iraq was a flowering hotbed of democracy until President Obama came along. His outlook is silly and childish, but at least, he is not upending the world with his nonsense.

    You all have been wrong since Egypt I, and the present Iraq mess is the direct result. Actions have consequences. Where is that personal responsibility when it becomes personal?

  • I see that TastyBits has lurched uncontrollably into the position I suggested nearly a year ago. What has been going on for some time is that we have been trying to balance competing U. S. interests in the Middle East and our choices have resulted in greater rather than less carnage and has now contributed to the destabilization of Iraq.

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    I am a non-delusional hawk, and I an tired of these delusions. When I state my true position, people either assume I am joking or am insane.

    I have been arguing against US involvement, and I have defended President Obama where he has stayed out. Egypt I and Libya were bad, but when the Europeans screwed the Russians in Libya, Syria was never going to end well.

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