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.