Bush, Clinton, Obama, and the Middle East Time Machine

by Michael Dorf

In a recent speech, Jeb Bush accused Hillary Clinton of standing "by as th[e] hard-won victory by American and allied forces [in Iraq] was thrown away." It's tempting to react to this accusation by reaching for something breakable to throw, given the inanities embedded in the statement.

First, by 2009, sectarian violence had declined from its peak a few years earlier but that hardly counts as "victory." Second, the suggestion that, if only the U.S. had maintained a large force in Iraq a few years longer, Iraq would now be a multi-ethnic paradise, is delusional. Third, the claim ignores the fact that the troop draw-down under Obama (and Clinton) proceeded on a timetable that George W. Bush had himself set. Fourth and most galling of all, to suggest that the rise of ISIS and the broader Sunni/Shiite conflict throughout the Middle East is chiefly the result of a former Secretary of State's failure to urge prolonging the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, while ignoring the Bush family's disastrous destabilization of the Middle East over the course of two decades--beginning with Jeb's father's mixed signals that led to Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, then to the first U.S. invasion of Iraq and the continuing presence of U.S. troops in the Gulf after its inconclusive end, then to Jeb's brother's determination to manufacture pretexts for invading Iraq again, exacerbated by incompetent prosecution of the post-war effort--is really too much.

Nonetheless, for all of that, if we disregard the messenger, there is something to the message. The Obama Administration inherited a mess from the Bush Administration but to paraphrase Rummy, you don't get out of a war from the country you wish you had invaded; you get out of the war you were in. And yet the Obama policy in the Middle East has always had an element of magical thinking about it. He wouldn't have invaded Iraq in 2003 both because it was a "dumb war" on its own and because doing so meant diverting attention from Afghanistan, where the U.S. dropped the ball in the fight against al Q'aeda. Fair enough. But Obama took office in 2009, by which time the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan were the product of the intervening years. And yet, in its overall shape, the Obama policy looked like it could only succeed with the help of a time machine: Extricating the U.S. from the conflict in Iraq and re-focusing on the battle against al Q'aeda wouldn't magically undo the damage that had been done in the Bush years. If jihadis operating out of Afghanistan were the main Middle Eastern threat to U.S. security in 2003, by 2009 it's at least arguable that the chaos unleashed in Iraq should have been a higher priority. (I remember reading something in the New Yorker to this effect some years ago, perhaps by George Packer, but I can't seem to find it.)

None of this is to say that Obama had any good options in Iraq or Afghanistan. In both, the choice was always between staying indefinitely, with our military presence fueling the anger and aiding the recruitment efforts of the groups we're fighting, and leaving, with a bloody civil war following. When all is said and done, leaving looks like the less bad option, at least from the U.S. perspective, which is how one expects a U.S. president to see things.

Meanwhile, of late Republican (and some Democratic) hawks have displayed a penchant for magical/time-machine thinking of their own. In criticizing the nuclear deal with Iran, they argue that Iran drove a harder bargain than the U.S. If only John Kerry had taken a firmer stance in negotiations, he would have gotten anytime-anywhere inspections or whatever.

Maybe that's even true. Perhaps Donald Trump's Secretary of State--or the Donald himself!--sitting at the bargaining table would have so terrified Javad Zarif and his overlords that they would have given over the keys to the nuclear kingdom. But now that that didn't happen, criticizing the deal that was obtained won't unring the bell. Rejection of the Iran deal will not enable the current or any future Administration to go back to the bargaining table and get a more U.S.-favorable deal because the U.S. will not have the leverage that it had at the last set of negotiations, with the backing of the G5+1.

Maybe, and even this is a big stretch, the UK, France, and Germany could be persuaded to maintain sanctions during renegotiations, but there's no chance that Russia and China would. Put simply, the choice is not between the deal that was reached and the status quo ante but between the deal that was reached and a no-deal/no-effective-sanctions regime. Unless the hawks have a time machine.