As the Islamic State’s barbarities make headlines, Republican presidential candidates are scrambling to outdo each other’s hawkish pronouncements on foreign policy.
That makes political sense. With the economy improving, polls show that voters now consider terrorism to be as important a campaign issue for 2016 as economic issues. And President Barack Obama’s incoherent efforts to degrade the Islamic State make him an easy target.
But when Jeb Bush, in a major foreign policy speech last week, tried to pin the blame for the Islamic State’s rise entirely on Obama it made my blood boil. The Mideast collapse that paved the way for the terrorists’ rise was precipitated by his brother’s misbegotten war in Iraq.
And if GOP hopefuls continue to whitewash George W.’s strategic errors (and Jeb has hired some of the very advisors who made them, such as former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz), then Republicans will surely repeat those errors if they take the White House in 2016.
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The former Florida governor briefly admitted in his speech that “there were mistakes made, for sure” in the Iraq war. He limited those to his brother’s use of intelligence (on Saddam’s nuclear weapons program) that “everyone embraced,” but turned out to be inaccurate, and to “not creating an environment of security” in Iraq after taking out Saddam Hussein.
But Jeb skipped entirely over the bloody Iraq years of 2003-2007. Instead, he praised his brother’s “heroic” surge strategy – which sent thousands more U.S. troops to Iraq and stabilized the country. He then criticized Obama’s decision to remove all troops from Iraq by 2011. This, he said, “created a void” that gave Iran greater influence than the United States within the country – and enabled the Islamic State to take over a third of Iraq last year.
This abbreviated version of history ignores the destruction of Iraq that occurred from 2003-2007, as I witnessed firsthand during many visits. (In 2007, I wrote columns in support of the surge under Gen. David Petraeus as the only hope of rescuing Iraq from total chaos, but that chaos arose on George W.’s watch).
Clumsy U.S. occupation policies totally alienated Iraq’s Sunni population, which enabled al-Qaida in Iraq to take root in Sunni areas (AQI was the precursor to the Islamic State). As early as 2004, Iranian-backed Shiite militias began terrorizing Iraqi Sunnis; they are still doing so, leading many Sunnis to support or tolerate the Islamic State. And contrary to Jeb’s version, it was his father’s administration that opened the door to heavy Iranian influence in the country. That’s history.
Bush administration officials like Wolfowitz – the intellectual heavyweight behind the Iraq war – had a complete misunderstanding of the Mideast.
In November, 2002, Wolfowitz told me in an interview that he would be “astonished” if there was instability in Iraq after a war. He expected that the United States would find “the most pro-American population anywhere in the Arab world” in Iraq. The proper historic analogy to describe post-war Iraq, he predicted, would be to compare it to “post-liberation France after World War II.”
Unfortunately for Wolfowitz, Iraq was not located in Europe.
Wolfowitz believed that dumping Saddam Hussein would produce a Shiite-led democracy that would become the model for the Mideast, and would inspire the ouster of Shiite Iran’s ayatollahs.
Instead, the mass of poor Iraqi Shiites viewed America with suspicion. They remembered that George H.W. Bush had called on them to rise up after the 1991 Gulf War, then let Saddam Hussein slaughter them when they did so.
The Shiite leaders who took power in Iraq looked to Iran for guidance and had deep grievances against the Americans. Iranian influence began to outstrip America’s in Iraq not long after Saddam fell.
Unripe for democracy, Iraq collapsed into sectarian warfare. Iraq became the model Arabs cite to prove that democracy leads to chaos. It has also become a model for the Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict that fueled the Islamic State’s rise.
Yet not a hint of self-criticism was visible on CNN on Sunday when Wolfowitz was asked about Iraq, as he touted Jeb Bush’s candidacy. As he told it, the blame was all Obama’s.
As I have written, Obama deserves blame for not trying harder to get Iraqi agreement to a U.S. follow-on force of 10,000 advisors after 2011 (although it was Bush 43 who agreed to the overall U.S. combat troops exit from Iraq). Obama also should take heat for an incoherent strategy with respect to the Islamic State, and past failures to arm onetime moderate Syrian rebels.
But the antidote to Obama’s wavering is not a revival of the blind jingoism that led to the Iraq debacle. Before calling for U.S. strikes on Iran or U.S. troops to Syria, Republicans should take a frank look at the past, and carefully consider the implications of military action.
They also should be wary of campaign fear-mongering that could precipitate hasty military action against the Islamic State that lacks a strategic framework. We should remember that irresponsible fear-mongering was used by the Bush 43 White House to falsely link Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida and nuclear weapons, (Sorry, Jeb Bush, but there was plenty of available intel that undercut both claims.) We know where that led.
If Jeb Bush is, as he claims, his “own man,” he’d do well to study the real history of the Iraq war closely. Better also to stick with his father’s more level-headed foreign policy advisers and avoid those whose blindness misled his brother – and kicked off the Mideast’s current chaotic mess.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.