And so the inevitable is unfolding: a possible collapse of the U.S.-imposed Iraqi state, the apparent triumph of the most brutal extremists in the world, and more to come in Syria, Afghanistan, and possibly Jordan, Mali, Libya, and who knows where else. The first step to recovery — if recovery is even feasible — is an honest reckoning of why this is happening.
The discourse in Washington, as always, will be superficial, partisan, and knowledge-free. The blaming of Obama for leaving Iraq in 2011 will be the Fox News mantra of coming days and weeks (and, judging from the Benghazi flap, for years). Even theNew York Times on Wednesday morning — reporting that the forces of the extremists, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, or ISIS, had overrun Mosul and were headed toward Baghdad — mentioned that this was another blow to the White House’s faltering foreign policy. But while Obama has his share of missteps, the responsibility for this catastrophe rests with the neocons of the George W. Bush years and the liberal hawks who can’t help but propose war when they see a wrong that needs righting.
Middle East historian Juan Cole explains the tumultuous history in his excellent blog, and makes the useful point that the Iraqi Parliament had rejected the U.S. proposal to keep a residual force in Iraq beyond 2011. Their rejection was rooted in eight years of mayhem that the U.S. invasion wrought. As I have argued exhaustively, the scale of killing was enormous — likely 600,000 or more Iraqis died in those years as a direct result of the war. That and displacement and impoverishment create and sustain bitterness that no amount of training and equipping the Iraqi army can salve. Many people would ask me why the mortality figures were so important (and a source of contention). This is why. The country was left a ruin, torn by sectarian politics and crippled by mistrust and fear and death. It is easy prey for the jihadists.
The second charge against Obama is that he failed to arm the moderate rebels in Syria, thereby giving the extremists an advantage. Obama should not have encouraged rebellion.