Sorry, Jeb: Your Brother Lost Iraq--Twice
Things did not go well the last time Jeb Bush tried to blame President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Dubya's calamity in Iraq. After comically flip-flopping as to whether he would have invaded Iraq knowing what he knows now, Jeb! was then humiliated by a 19 year-old college student who correctly explained to him, "Your brother created ISIS."
Three months after those not-ready-for-primetime moments, Governor Bush is once again charging that the American troop withdrawal at the end of 2011 "was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill." It was, Jeb claimed on Tuesday, "a case of blind haste to get out and to call the tragic consequences somebody else's problem."
Now, you can't blame a brother for trying. But like his first broadside against Obama and Clinton, Jeb's latest attack is doomed to fail. After all, this week in Baghdad Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with brought cross-sectarian support proposed overhauling the corrupt, Shiite-dominated government even as a new AP report once again confirmed that the top command of the Islamic State is "dominated by ex-officers in Saddam's army."
As it turns out, President George W. Bush didn't just lose Iraq; he lost it twice. Defeat was ensured the first time in March 2003 as soon as the first American units crossed the border from Kuwait. But having created an ally of Iran the moment Saddam Hussein was ousted, President Bush guaranteed a recurring sectarian bloodbath in 2006 and 2007, when he installed his man and Shiite partisan Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. And when al-Maliki betrayed the Sunni Awakening by alienating the tribal leaders whose vital support against Al Qaeda the U.S. temporarily bought, Bush's Faustian bargain predictably came undone.
To fully grasp the magnitude of President Bush's calamity in Iraq, it's well worth recalling his war aims in his own words. On March 17, 2003, Bush addressed the American people about the looming invasion. "Today, no nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed," Bush announced, "And it will not disarm so long as Saddam Hussein holds power." President Bush explained why he was launching an unprecedented preventive war and what its success would bring:
The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed...
We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over...
And responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self defense. It is suicide. The security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now. [Emphasis mine.]
Bush made promises to the Iraqi people, too. "The tyrant will soon be gone," he said, adding that "the day of your liberation is near."
"We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free."
But by every objective measure of his own goals, George W. Bush failed miserably. Due to an undersized invasion force and, more critically, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the Ba'athist bureaucracy, Iraq rapidly deteriorated into chaos and violence. Foreign Al Qaeda fighters flocked to the Sunni triangle to battle U.S. forces while Shiite militias backed by Iran targeted American troops in and around Baghdad. The symbols of progress--like Condi Rice's note to Bush that "Iraq is sovereign" after the June 2004 handover of power by Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority and the purple fingers of Iraqi voters and Republican Congressmen from elections boycotted by the Sunni minority--were belied by the growing civilian bloodshed and the mounting American casualties. Meanwhile, those weapons of mass destruction upon which the Bush administration made its case for war never materialized. With events spiraling out of control in August 2004, President Bush offered a novel--and shameful--explanation for the calamity he and his advisers authored:
"Had we had to do it [the invasion of Iraq] over again, we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success - being so successful so fast that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day."
Fight another day, indeed.
As I documented at length elsewhere, Jeb Bush was dead wrong when he claimed this month, "ISIS didn't exist when my brother was president. Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was President." And 19 year-old Nevada college student Ivy Ziedrich had it exactly right when she lectured Jeb, "Your brother created ISIS." As I explained then:
Ms. Ziedrich's is a bold claim. After all, for her to be right, ISIS--the dangerous movement combining Saddam loyalists, former Al Qaeda members and disgruntled Sunni fighters--would have to have emerged as a direct result of the war Bush launched in 2003. The disbanding of Saddam's 400,000 man army would have to be laid at the feet of "The Decider." Foreign fighters must have flocked to Al Qaeda--a non-factor in Iraq before the U.S. invasion--specifically to target American troops. And while those unlikely allies forged ties in U.S and Iraqi prisons, Sunni tribesmen once paid by American forces would have to have become alienated by a sectarian Shiite strongman in Baghdad beholden to Iran. The inevitable outcome of such U.S. mismanagement of post-Saddam Iraq, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld privately warned his boss on October 15, 2002, would be that "Iraq could experience ethnic strife among Sunni, Shia, and Kurds" with the result that "it could fracture into two or three pieces, to the detriment of the Middle East and the benefit of Iran."
Unfortunately for Jeb Bush--and to Ivy Ziedrich's credit, that is precisely what transpired.
That "ethnic strife" is exactly what came to pass after Sunni extremists destroyed the golden dome of the Shiite shrine in Samarra. And what ensued next--and continues to this day--is the very kind of bloody, sectarian civil war the likes of John McCain and Bill Kristol arrogantly predicted would never come to pass. As Senator McCain, who was wrong about so much of what would to pass in Iraq, put it on April 23, 2003:
"There is not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias, so I think they can probably get along."
On April 1, 2003, Kristol went even further, belittling those Americans worried about opening a Pandora's Box of sectarian conflict in Iraq:
"On this issue of the Shia in Iraq, I think there's been a certain amount of, frankly, a kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular."
The men and women of the American military learned the hard way that Bush, Kristol and McCain were tragically wrong. And in 2006, months before the "Surge" that brought 30,000 more U.S. troops into the country, President Bush made that Faustian bargain that sowed the seeds for the Islamic State to sweep through northwest Iraq in 2014. As his commander General David Petraeus described it, in the summer of 2006 the United States put the Sunni insurgency on its payroll and promised Sunni tribal leaders a role in the Iraq government. But when Dubya tapped Shiite strongman Nouri al-Maliki as his man in Baghdad, it was only a matter of time until that promise was broken.
In August 2006, the Washington Post reported, "Tribal sheikhs in Iraq's Anbar province turned against a chief U.S. threat: al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)." General David Petraeus later described the so-called "Sunni Awakening," which began five months before President Bush announced the surge of thousands of additional U.S. troops into Iraq, as a turning point in the U.S.-led war effort. On January 5, 2007--five days before Bush addressed the nation about his surge strategy--John McCain agreed with that assessment:
Too often the light at the tunnel has turned out to be a train, but I really believe -- I really believe that there's a strong possibility that you may see a very substantial change in Anbar province due to this new changes in our relationships with the sheiks in the region.
But the decision of Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha and other Sunni tribal leaders to turn on the Al Qaeda forces led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and partner with the U.S. in arming some 90,000 Sons of Iraq came with a big asterisk attached. As the Post noted in 2008:
But experts stress the moves by Sunni sheikhs was less an embrace of U.S. objectives and more a repudiation of al-Qaeda in Iraq's actions...
"The Americans think they have purchased Sunni loyalty," Nir Rosen, a fellow at New York University Center on Law and Security, told Congress in April 2008. "But in fact it is the Sunnis who have bought the Americans" by buying time to challenge the Shiite government.
Regardless, for Bush's deal with the devil to succeed, the Sunni tribes had to stay bought. And they would only stay bought if they had a partner to work with in Baghdad. But that's precisely what the Bush administration failed to provide.
Writing in the New Yorker in April 2014, Dexter Filkins recalled Maliki's ascension to the premiership engineered by the Bush administration. In 2006, Bush undermined the incumbent PM, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who struggling to form a government:
An avuncular, bookish figure, Jaafari had infuriated Bush with his indecisiveness, amiably presiding over the sectarian bloodbath that had followed the recent bombing of a major Shiite shrine.
During the videoconference, Bush asked Khalilzad, "Can you get rid of Jaafari?"
"Yes," Khalilzad replied, "but it will be difficult."
Difficult, but not impossible. "I have a name for you," a CIA officer told U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, "Maliki."
But as Filkins explained last June, "Maliki is a militant sectarian to the core, and he had been fighting on behalf of Iraq's long-suppressed Shiite majority for years before the Americans arrived, in 2003.
As noted above, the success of the 2007 U.S. surge in Iraq turned on the American cultivation of Sunni tribal leaders in restive Anbar province already underway since the previous year. The arming of 90,000 "Sons of Iraq" and the new alliance with the Sunni sheikhs helped turn the tide against Al Qaeda insurgents in the west. By late 2007, there were already worries that the Sunnis wouldn't stay bought, with Shiite politicians and CIA analysts warning that "when the U.S. leaves, what we'll have are two armies" and "there is a danger here that we are going to have armed all three sides: the Kurds in the north, the Shiite and now the Sunni militias." And that risk would be elevated if the Shiite-controlled government led by Prime Minister Al-Maliki refused to accommodate Sunni interests in Baghdad.
Which is precisely why GOP Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Saxby Chambliss fretted that the entire Sunni Awakening could be undone if the Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki didn't move quickly to seek political accommodation with the minority Sunni and Kurdish communities in Iraq. As Graham put it in November 2007:
"What would happen for me if there's no progress on reconciliation after the first of the year, I would be looking at ways to invest our money into groups that can deliver."
Chambliss was even blunter, telling reporters "If we don't see positive results by the end of the year I think you'll probably see a strong message coming out of Congress calling for a change in administration.
But behind closed doors, Robert Draper reported, McCain months earlier had delivered a much harsher message about al-Maliki for President Bush:
It suddenly seemed that the efforts of the surge might be for naught. And so, shortly after returning from Iraq, McCain and Graham visited President Bush at the White House. According to three individuals with knowledge of the July 11 conversation, the pair advised Bush to cut all ties with al-Maliki unless he showed immediate signs of engagement. Such a move on Bush's part would be tantamount to encouraging a coup against Iraq's first democratically elected prime minister, but McCain and Graham saw the situation as a desperate one. We've got a military strategy that's working, they told the president. And it's being undercut by an Iraqi government that's dysfunctional.
Bush was sympathetic. He'd been giving al-Maliki pep talks for more than six months now, with little to show for the effort. But, he told the two senators, "Who's going to replace him?"
We don't have a good answer for that, they replied. But unless al-Maliki changes, we can't get there.
But Nouri al-Maliki didn't change That's why Filkins, who believes the U.S. should have tried harder to maintain a small legacy force in place after 2011, declared Prime Minister Al-Maliki is "probably the dominant" factor in the current disintegration in Iraq:
Time and again, American commanders have told me, they stepped in front of Maliki to stop him from acting brutally and arbitrarily toward Iraq's Sunni minority. Then the Americans left, removing the last restraints on Maliki's sectarian and authoritarian tendencies.
In the two and a half years since the Americans' departure, Maliki has centralized power within his own circle, cut the Sunnis out of political power, and unleashed a wave of arrests and repression. Maliki's march to authoritarian rule has fueled the reemergence of the Sunni insurgency directly. With nowhere else to go, Iraq's Sunnis are turning, once again, to the extremists to protect them.
That was evident in rapid ISIS takeover of Mosul last year. The much larger Iraqi army units evaporated in the face of hundreds of ISIS fighters. The Washington Post described the reaction of residents:
For many in the mostly Sunni city, the ouster of the hated national security forces was welcome, offering a sign of just how much the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has alienated the Sunni population in the eight years since Maliki came to power.
Eight years and $25 billion after the United States occupied the country, an Iraqi Army undermined by sectarian politics still won't fight to stop the Islamic State. As Filkins warned earlier this year, in the wake of Ramadi's fall to ISIS, the new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad must choose between the lesser of two evils:
In Baghdad, Prime Minister Abadi faces a stark choice: losing Anbar Province to ISIS or unleashing Shiite militias to reconquer the place, only to permanently alienate an occupied Sunni population. The militias, some of which were responsible for widespread atrocities during the Iraqi civil war between 2005 and 2008, are generally much more effective than the Iraqi Army. Despite their success, American officials are deeply worried about the prospect of the Iraqi security forces being completely taken over by gangs of Shiite gunmen, and they have leaned on Prime Minister Abadi to keep the militias out of Ramadi. For one thing, the militias are trained and backed by Iran, whose influence, despite the country's desire to crush ISIS, often runs directly against that of the United States. During the American war in Iraq, those same Shiite militias, under Iranian direction, killed hundreds of Americans soldiers.
But the most important reason the Americans are opposing the use of Shiite militias to help regain control of Anbar Province is that they don't want the campaign against ISIS to become an entirely sectarian war.
Abadi has made his choice. Even as American headlines reported that "Iraq Risks Sinking Into Sectarian War, Analysts Say," the Prime Minister dispatched pro-Iran militias, the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, to help the Iraqi army recapture Ramadi from ISIS. Some of those fighters, armed and advised by Tehran, have the blood of American soldiers on their hands. And now, they will try to eject the Islamic State from Ramadi, where U.S. troops fought and died years ago against some of the same Al Qaeda fighters now flying the ISIS banner.
Of course, you'd never know any of this listening to Jeb Bush. For him, history began only when his brother's presidency ended:
"Who can seriously argue that America and our friends are safer today than in 2009, when the president and Secretary Clinton -- the storied 'team of rivals' -- took office? So eager to be the history-makers, they failed to be the peacemakers."
But Obama and Clinton didn't inherent peace in Iraq, but a seething sectarian conflict certain to erupt again. As Peter Beinart reminded Jeb Bush and his ilk this week, the "Surge Fallacy" was President Bush's second failure in Iraq:
But they forget something crucial. The surge was not intended merely to reduce violence. Reducing violence was a means to a larger goal: political reconciliation. Only when Iraq's Sunni and Shia Arabs and its Kurds all felt represented by the government would the country be safe from civil war. As a senior administration official told journalists the day Bush announced the surge, "The purpose of all this is to get the violence in Baghdad down, get control of the situation and the sectarian violence, because now, without it, the reconciliation that everybody knows in the long term is the key to getting security in the country--the reconciliation will not happen."
That reconciliation still hasn't happened. And that's why Jeb's brother lost Iraq. Twice.