In the wake of former Gov. Jeb Bush's (R-Fla.) bungled responses to predictable questions about Iraq, Republican strategists are rolling out a specious new argument: In essence, that all was well in Iraq at the end of the George W. Bush administration, and President Obama messed it up. Charles Krauthammer calls it "the abandonment of 2011," blaming the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) recent advances on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011.
This argument flies so completely in the face of history and logic that it rivals the way Vice President Cheney intentionally misled Congress and the American public with false, exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Those misrepresentations led us into a war that 75 percent of the American public now says was not worth fighting. The hawks' new line is designed to get us back into it.
Let's start by remembering that the 2007 surge was intended as a temporary build-up to buy time, not as a prelude to permanent occupation. It was President George W. Bush who signed the security agreement with Iraq that set a date of Dec. 31, 2011 for all U.S. forces to withdraw from the country. And despite the U.S. success in holding up its side of the bargain — reducing levels of violence in order to create space for political progress — the Iraqi government remained unwilling or unable to do its part.
Second, we must acknowledge our own role in giving rise to ISIS. Almost all of its higher-ups were members of Hussein's security forces, disbanded under the de-Baathification policy of the Bush administration. Set loose in society with arms, training and grievances, but no jobs or income, these sacked officers formed the core of the Iraqi insurgency. And it was in U.S.-run detention camps that terrorist leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, did their best recruiting.
Third, it is clear that leaving U.S. troops in for longer, or returning them now, would not essentially change the fundamentals of the conflict. ISIS and other extremist forces are expanding, not for lack of powerful enemies, but because those enemies are themselves so abhorrent. The repressive, violent and corrupt regimes in Syria and Iran are the chief antagonists and targets of ISIS. By inserting ourselves into this fight, we unavoidably strengthen the very regimes we find so repugnant and so threatening to U.S. interests in the region.
Strengthening Iran was, in fact, our principal achievement by invading Iraq in the first place. Before considering another ill-advised move in the region, we ought to consider the secondary and tertiary impacts of the application of military power. For instance, even if we had the ability to crush ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which is doubtful, it might only have the effect of splintering and scattering extremists across the globe, making a coordinated effort against them far more complicated.
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said in his testimony before Congress last fall, "there is no military solution" to ISIS; they "will only be defeated or destroyed once they are rejected by the population in which they hide." It may be difficult for us to understand why, as Defense Secretary Ashton Carter admitted, the Iraqi army lacks the will to fight, but if $26 billion and nearly a decade of effort didn't work, then it's time to step back and reexamine our assumptions.
The fact that the Iraqi army isn't standing up to ISIS doesn't mean that the United States can or should do the job for them. In fact, precisely the opposite: All we can reasonably do is help the Iraqis build a state worth fighting for.
Ohlbaum is an independent consultant, a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Project on Prosperity and Development and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.