Where We Went Wrong

The situation on the ground in Iraq gets worse by the day. With the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) making advances with each passing day, the Iraqi government, and by extension its allies, seem to have been caught flat footed. CNN’s Jake Tapper reported that, according to administration sources, even if President Obama decided to engage militarily by way of air strikes, the U.S. does not yet have ISIS targets to hit. It takes a period of time, they said, to develop that intel.

The president’s defenders insist that there was no way he could have seen this coming. It would stand to reason that a man of his superior intelligence would not make a mistake of this magnitude. If this scenario were possible to foresee, he most certainly would have.

As a matter of fact, as Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle East policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out, what has happened ran counter to what Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for the Middle East Colin Kahl testified to Congress, that “we need to be clear that the Iraqis are very much in charge, and they simply no longer need such large numbers of U.S. forces to help them keep the violence in check.”

Some time ago, a fellow spoke to a crowd about the idea of drawing down the Iraq war, and taking our troops out. He said, “But as we think about bringing them home we also have to recognize the risks associated with what we’re facing there. Because if we were to see a collapse of the government there, a collapse of the country in some way, you can see, potentially, a massive Civil War breaking out with potentially millions of lives being lost. You could see in the Shia south, the Iranians reaching over and grabbing to take power. You could see in the Sunni northwest, the al-Qaida folks taking power and leadership in that area —and establishing it as a base for terror that could be awful for us for many, many years. You could see the unrest among some of the Kurd populations and surrounding countries, perhaps, destabilize the border of Turkey. And it’s even possible that you might think a regional conflict in the Middle East may occur — if things really unraveled in Iraq.

And for those reasons you recognize that unless we manage this properly, the significant risk that the impact of American lives and the need to send American troops back there in even larger numbers could occur.”

Around that same time, a press conference was held to discuss the war in Iraq. At the press conference, it was said that “[t]he real debate over Iraq is between those who think the fight is lost or not worth the cost, and those that believe the fight can be won and that, as difficult as the fight is, the cost of defeat would be far higher. I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must…. When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq it will be because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it will be good politics…. I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now. To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al-Qaida. It would mean that we’d be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It would mean we’d allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It would mean increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous. The fight in Iraq is part of a broader struggle that’s unfolding across the region.… All these extremist groups [in Iran, Lebanon and Syria] would be emboldened by a precipitous American withdrawal, which would confuse and frighten friends and allies in the region.”

When you read the words of those two statements, arguments that were both made in 2007 against the kind of withdrawal the president ordered from Iraq, you have to stop and ask yourself: Why is it that those people weren’t in a position to advise the president? If they would have been, then surely, had he heard their arguments, he would have understood that they were making a point that should have been carefully considered.

There is a simple reason, though, that the president could not take advice from the people who, seven years ago, basically spelled out what eventually did happen because of our withdrawal from Iraq without an adequate Status of Forces Agreement (SFA). The reason is that the people who made those statements are people whom the president, and his supporters, ridiculed the most as being short on intelligence, or as having no idea how to deal with global issues. Those two individuals are Mitt Romney and George W. Bush, respectively. And this is the president who has been described by allies such as presidential historian Michael Beschloss as “the smartest guy ever to become president” and who said of himself when he became president that he knew he “can do this job … it’s going to be an easier adjustment … than the campaign. Much easier.” Does it make sense that he should even listen to those intellectually inferior?

Former Assistant to the U.S. President for Economic Policy and Director of the U.S. National Economic Council Keith Hennessey relates how his class at Stanford Business School is always shocked when he informs them that President Bush is “smarter than almost every one of [them].” The problem, he points out, is that people base their judgments of his intelligence on how he is portrayed by the media and his political adversaries. Those who have policy disagreements with him find solace in this myth as well. But the fact, he says, is that in dealing with him on complex issues, his intelligence shone forth. CEOs, after meeting him the first time, would regularly say, “Gosh, I had no idea he was that smart.”

Romney was called “a fool” by Paul Krugman, and similar disparaging names by other prominent liberals. But anyone who has dealt with the former governor says that he is an incredibly intelligent person — as his business record most certainly proves.

What most certainly is not smart, however, is spending billions of dollars on campaigns designed to paint some individuals and their ideas as unintelligent, and then fall for your own propaganda.

But as Iraq is starting to make very clear, the president and his team may have made that very mistake.