Credit and Blame on Iraq

In a rather surreal debate, Vice President Biden and former Vice President Cheney seemed to disagree about who gets “credit” for improving the situation in Iraq.   Cheney and those standing with him think that Biden and Obama, by opposing the war in Iraq should get no credit for helping bring stability.   Biden and those standing with him think that by engaging in such a disastrous undertaking and making so many mistakes in Iraq, Bush should get no credit for helping improve the situation.   Both are wrong.

Iraq was one of the most costly foreign policy errors in the history of US foreign policy. I am absolutely convinced that when we look at costs and impact of that war on the country and its place on the global stage historians will judge President Bush harshly for making a major mistake in the aftermath of 9-11.   By focusing on military victories in the Mideast as an effort to reshape the region and likely secure oil supplies for the distant future, Bush made visible the military vulnerabilities of the US, and helped array an anti-American coalition that undercut US status in the world.

Yet President Bush adjusted.   By late 2005 it was becoming clear that the neo-conservative dream for a “model Iraq” that would lead the region out of authoritarianism and towards market democracy.   In 2006 Iraq drifted into actual civil war between Shi’ite and Sunni forces.   US casualties increased, and the cost of the war in human and economic terms led to policies at home that fed a bubble economy.   The government wanted war on the cheap, so to avoid demanding sacrifice a period of hyper-consumption hid the cost.

President Bush faced one of the hardest challenges a leader can face.   He had to recognize his policy failed, make adjustments, and yet do so without appearing to vacillate and be weak.    His rhetoric retained a lot of the old bravado, but absent were insults to other countries and the “with us or against us” slogans that pushed allies away.   Instead he quietly patched up relations with the states Donald Rumsfeld called “old Europe,” improved ties with Russia and China, even though they clearly were positioning themselves as rivals to the US.   And in Iraq he totally altered the goals and strategies.

First, the neo-conservative dream of a close Iraqi ally to the US to pressure Syria and Iran, and thereby help Israel, was dumped.  In fact, even the idea that companies from US and US allies would control Iraq’s oil future got pushed aside.  All the dreams of reshaping the region were traded in for one goal: stabilize the country so we can get out.

No longer needing to have in place a pro-American regime willing to follow our desires (it had been thought that an easy US victory in Iraq would make the US a dominant power and the Iraqis would want our favor), the Bush Administration worked with pro-Iranian Shi’ite parties, made peace with Sunni insurgents, and focused only on putting down al qaeda forces that had gone into Iraq after the US invasion to de-stabilize the country.   By co-opting most of the enemy, this meant that only the most radical forces in Iraq remained committed to fighting the US.   The rest, seeing that the US would leave without demanding to have a strong say in the future of the country, suddenly saw it in their interest to work with the US.

Americans focused on the “surge” of forces to help create stability while pulling off this political change, but the change in strategy was far more important than the increased force levels.   What President Bush did was essentially recognize the failure of his policy, and then adjust to try to out of the situation with the least damage to the US and Iraq.   It isn’t easy for a President to admit failure by changing policy so dramatically.   Lyndon Johnson could not do that in Vietnam, and hence gave up his re-election bid.   George W. Bush did make that move — forced by circumstances, to be sure, but in a manner that showed resolve and good decision making.   For that, he deserves credit.

President Obama came in and has essentially continued and in some cases hastened the Bush policy change, but has not fundamentally altered the strategies that President Bush put in place in 2007.    He deserves credit for sticking with a policy that seems to be working, and avoiding the temptation to make changes for the sake of showing that he isn’t President Bush.   In short, Biden is right to blame Bush and Cheney for huge mistakes in 2002-03, costly mistakes which may ultimately be looked at as the key force that pushed the US into an era of decline.   That decline isn’t inevitable, but the politicians have to start working together if they’re going to make tough decisions to turn things around.   Cheney is right to say that the Bush Administration should get credit for the policies that started to stabilize Iraq.   And Biden is right that Obama should get some credit, but wrong to the extent that he wants to give the Obama-Biden Administration complete credit.

Afghanistan is a different story.   President Bush never got that conflict figured out, he was understandably more focused on the disaster in Iraq.  President Obama’s efforts in Afghanistan will be judged by history.   the Bush-Cheney Administration is to blame for much of what has gone wrong in Afghanistan; the Obama Administration will get credit for blame for whether or not their policies can improve things.

But that’s a different war.   For Iraq it seems clear:  The Bush Administration made a monumental mistake in starting a war that has hurt the US immensely.   For that they should be blamed.   They deserve credit for altering the policy goals, objectives and strategies to try to figure out a way to achieve some kind of stable exit from the country.   The Obama Administration deserves credit for continuing that policy and in general handling Iraq well.   If the US can leave in a timely manner and Iraq avoids stability, much of that will be due to actions by the Obama Administration.

But in the beltway world credit and blame cannot be shared, so the politicians will keep fighting.

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  1. #1 by Jeff Lees on February 15, 2010 - 19:02

    In the end, no matter how much credit he deserves, I don’t think Bush’s successes in Iraq will ever outweigh his failures there. Plus I don’t think most American’s look at Iraq as a success anyway.

  2. #2 by Michael Arnis on February 16, 2010 - 01:51

    Scott,

    You ended by saying that credit and blame cannot be shared in the beltway, and so, politicians will keep fighting. The current push in the newspapers and major magazines — and somewhat on t.v. talk shows — is toward saving ourselves by practicing (rather than just demonstrating) bipartisanship. David Brooks, although not a newcomer to promoting this advice, recently wrote a long opinion on bipartisanship. He championed that R’s and D’s need to start listening to, and adopting, each other’s good ideas.

    Mr. Brooks stopped short, however, of articulating that the reason for bipartisanship is to ensure that the best ideas rise to the top. To loosely return to the last sentence of your post, there is everything right about credit and blame when it is earned and distributed correctly. Then, bipartisanship is partisanship at its best.

    If you can squeeze it in, I would sure like to read a post of your’s on bipartisanship, or how you believe different parties should govern together, or any topic close to those before the Feb 25 summit on health care.

    Thank you, Michael

    • #3 by Scott Erb on February 16, 2010 - 02:53

      Thanks for the comment. I’ll try to put together my thoughts on that soon. A short take now: I guess in some ways bipartisanship is like diplomacy. The goal in diplomacy is get the best deal for your own side without getting the negative consequences of hostility or an inability to address issues of common concern. Bi-partisanship would mean the GOP and Democrats try to get what’s most in their interest, governed by a pragmatic “realist” ‘politics is the art of the possible’ philosophy. Just as two countries don’t unify when they use diplomacy, and instead still often pursue their own interests pretty intensely, I would expect the same with the two political parties in even the best spirit of bi-partisanship.

    • #4 by classicliberal2 on February 16, 2010 - 09:32

      “The current push in the newspapers and major magazines — and somewhat on t.v. talk shows — is toward saving ourselves by practicing (rather than just demonstrating) bipartisanship.”

      That isn’t just a “current push”–that is ALWAYS the “push” when Democrats are in the White House. It’s a concept virtually worshiped by the “mainstream” corporate press whenever even a hint of a “threat” of liberal reform is in the air.

      It’s also one that has, in and of itself, absolutely NO value, and is actually pernicious when embraced as a virtue, rather than a necessary feature of a functioning liberal democracy. In a two-party state that’s already virtually a one-party state, “bipartisanship,” in the way it’s meant by those who are forever pimping it, means even less choice for the public.

      This is an argument I’ve been having elsewhere recently, mostly centered around the current Republican abuse of the filibuster. Why should a party that lost so massively in the last election cycle be able to continue to dictate policy and to prevent the government that was elected from enacting the agenda that elected it? That’s what has happened. The public elected Obama to the presidency in a one-sided massacre, and gave his party a supermajority in congress, yet Republicans have used the filibuster and other procedures to bottle up just about everything. After losing the congress in 2006, they began using the filibuster against almost all major Democratic legislation–70% of it. When Obama and an even bigger Democratic majority was elected in 2008, they’ve used it, so far, almost 100% of the time, and a full 100% of the time on major legislation. Of what value is an election if 40% is allowed to continue to dictate how things will be done to the other 60%? It renders elections completely meaningless. What is needed isn’t more “bipartisanship.” What is needed is to get rid of the anti-democratic means by which the current mess has been allowed to occur.

      “David Brooks, although not a newcomer to promoting this advice, recently wrote a long opinion on bipartisanship. He championed that R’s and D’s need to start listening to, and adopting, each other’s good ideas.”

      That isn’t possible in the current political climate, because Republicans refuse to work with Democrats on anything. Even when Democrats adopt conservative Republican policies, the Rs won’t get behind it. We saw that during the whole run of the Clinton administration, and it has been even worse–SO much worse–during the Obama.

      People like Brooks don’t look at the facts. Check out the fate of the PAYGO bill. It was a Republican bill that would have required that new programs be paid for by cutting existing ones; as soon as the Obama announced his support for it, 7 Republican Senators who had co-written the bill (four of whom had voted in favor of identical legislation four years earlier) flip-flopped and came out against it. The same thing happened with the proposed debt commission: 5 Republican co-authors of the legislation jumped ship the moment the Obama announced his support for it. When Obama proposed a freeze on non-military spending, the same thing happened. Even John McCain, who had made it a part of his presidential platform, flip-flopped so that he not be seen as cooperating on anything. In order to attract Republican votes, the Obama larded up his stupid “stimulus” bill with wasteful, less stimulative tax cuts–they made up 41% of the bill. He got a total of two Republican votes in the Senate, and the Republicans have made a grand show about ranting against the “socialist” bill in outlets like Fox News, and going on about how it wouldn’t work, but, as liberal MSNBC host Rachel Maddow documented last week, 29 of those same Republicans who voted against and denounced the bill then went to their home states and took credit for the projects it was helping fund, and praised its effectiveness. It is the standing position of the Republican party to not only oppose every major legislative initiative of this administration, but to actively refuse to work with it, even on measures they, themselves, support.

      That’s the political reality today, and if my lengthy rant on what is, in this thread, really just a side issue doesn’t make it plain, I’ve found the near-absolute blindness to it by so many politicians and commentators to be a source of much frustration.

  3. #5 by notesalongthepath on February 18, 2010 - 03:57

    Thanks, as always, Scott, for writing about our government’s actions and what they mean to us as a whole people.
    Even I felt Bush started to care toward the end of his second term. And I have to say that I am saddened by the changes that haven’t happened in the Obama Administration, which I was so hoping for. Time to grow up, I guess.

  1. The US and UK approach on Iraq: Similar but yet so Different « Tony Blair

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