Who lost Iraq? Why, Barack Obama, of course. Obama's critics have seized on his announcement that all American troops would be leaving Iraq by the end of this year to blame him for losing the war, and squandering eight years' worth of blood and treasure. "Iran has just defeated the United States in Iraq," Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan wrote in the Los Angeles Times. The decision was "a tragedy, not a triumph," lamented the Wall Street Journal's Max Boot. "The Iranians are already hailing it as a great victory and, for once, they're right," harrumphed Sen. John McCain.
This is preposterous. First, and most obviously, it was George W. Bush who made a mess of Iraq, and then dumped the mess on his successor. And the Obama administration's failure to persuade the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to permit a residual U.S. force to remain beyond 2011 may be a misfortune, but it's hardly a calamity. If 700,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers can't defend Iraq from Iranian ambitions and from the country's own internal divisions, than neither can a few thousand, or even 10,000, American troops. The United States never had as much leverage in Iraq as it thought it did; the Iraqis want to make their own choices, and their own mistakes, and the Americans now have no alternative but to let them do so.
The claim that Obama could have produced a different outcome if he had wanted to is very tenuous. It's true that the president and his senior aides have been disingenuous in claiming to be content with the situation in which they now find themselves. The White House wanted a small force to remain behind to train Iraqi soldiers, to deter terrorist attacks, and perhaps to help keep the peace along the internal border between northern Iraq and Kurdistan; many Iraqis wanted this as well. But the Obama administration was never going to permit troops to remain without an offical pledge of legal immunity from Iraqi courts, and Iraq's leadership was unanimous in refusing to grant that right. The Iraqis wanted their sovereignty back more than they wanted that extra layer of protection. "It became increasingly clear to us that the politics were not going to allow Iraq to get to that point," a senior White House official said to me. "They made it crystal clear that they wanted a clean break with the past; the so-called occupation was over."
It's also true that Obama steadily whittled down the number of troops to remain beyond 2011, from the 15,000 or so his commanders wanted to only 3,000 to 5,000. Boot claims that Iraq's leaders might have defied "the domestic backlash" they would face over granting immunity in order to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq, but not for the modest contingent Obama finally settled on; but there's little evidence for that claim. Others, including Foreign Policy, have insisted that the troops could have been, in effect, re-hatted as State Department employees and granted diplomatic immunity. The White House official I spoke to said, "Our lawyers looked at this left, right, and upside-down. There was no legal theory to support it without accepting significant risk to our troops. The president was not willing to accept that risk." It may be true that Obama would have tried harder if he hadn't also wanted to honor the campaign pledge he made to withdraw the troops from Iraq. But with the American people almost as sick of Iraq as the Iraqis are of the United States, Obama would have had no support at home for raising the stakes.
So Obama is almost certainly not at fault -- but that still doesn't tell us how bad the consequences of the American withdrawal will be. Of course, that depends on what we're worried about. Iraqi leaders have failed almost completely to confront the issues that still divide Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd, among them oil revenues, internal boundaries, and the distribution of political power, which remains overwhelmingly concentrated in Shiite hands. This virtually assures that dangerous levels of sectarian tension will continue, and with them the possibility of growing violence. But these are political problems that a much larger contingent of American troops has done nothing to abate over the last eight years. American diplomats, who will remain behind in large numbers, can accomplish as much, or as little, simply by serving as honest brokers.