Let me now conclude my series of essays about why I have now come to believe that the US Invasion of Iraq was a mistake. The short answer is that the invasion could have produced enormous benefits, but the US government and its political system was simply not competent enough to do the job successfully.
As I have discussed previously, the Bush Administration squandered a significant portion of the net benefits by not having enough troops or having a plan in place for the new government. And the Obama Administration did little to constrain Maliki while the US was in Iraq.
Now let me conclude with the second enormous mistake by the Obama Administration: its withdrawal from Iraq. As Charles Krauthammer recently wrote, the result of the Obama Administration’s withdrawal from Iraq
was predictable. And predicted. Overnight, Iran and its promotion of Shiite supremacy became the dominant influence in Iraq. The day after the U.S. departure, Maliki ordered the arrest of the Sunni vice president. He cut off funding for the Sons of Iraq, the Sunnis who had fought with us against al-Qaeda. And subsequently so persecuted and alienated Sunnis that they were ready to welcome back al-Qaeda in Iraq — rebranded in its Syrian refuge as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — as the lesser of two evils. Hence the stunningly swift ISIS capture of Mosul, Tikrit and so much of Sunni Iraq.
There is a longer story here. For example, as Peter Beinart writes:
On December 12, 2011, just days before the final U.S. troops departed Iraq, Maliki visited the White House. According to Nasr [who worked in the State Department at the time], [Maliki] told Obama that Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, an Iraqiya leader and the highest-ranking Sunni in his government, supported terrorism. Maliki, argues Nasr, was testing Obama, probing to see how the U.S. would react if he began cleansing his government of Sunnis. Obama replied that it was a domestic Iraqi affair. After the meeting, Nasr claims, Maliki told aides, “See! The Americans don’t care.”
Iraq has now become a serious problem and the future does not look promising.
It is interesting to ask why this limited victory at the end of Bush’s second term was squandered. There are two points here. First, the Obama Administration – for whatever reason – chose to withdraw from Iraq rather than to stay engaged in order to promote a freer nation. It is not entirely clear whether this was done for political reasons or out of cluelessness, or both. In the wider scheme of things, it does not matter. The Obama Administration could not be counted on to act competently.
Second, the American people, or at least a sizeable portion of them, were not willing to sustain the actions necessary in order to maintain the gains from the intervention. The American people did not punish Obama for his behavior at the time. Instead, they believed his nonsense.
The bottom line here is that the political system – both the politicians and the American people – was simply not competent enough to pursue the nation building strategy in Iraq. Nor is this a one time phenomenon. While there are differences, the similarities between Iraq and Viet Nam are significant.
Some Republicans might place the blame on Democrats, arguing that the latter cannot be trusted with national security. Even if one accepted the premise of this argument, that would change nothing. That one of the two parties cannot be trusted to participate in long term policies for which they will inevitably have some responsibility suggests that those policies should not be undertaken.
In the end, I was mistaken to support the invasion. It is not that the strategy could not have worked if the government had been competent. The point is that the government is not competent. Overestimating the competence of the government is a cardinal sin for a libertarian, even of the moderate type that I am. I had been wiser in the past, and I should not have made the mistake. I will try not to let it happen again.