I stopped on my way home from work last night at a local sports bar to have a cold draft beer and some grilled chicken wings and got into a conversation about America’s foreign policy in the Middle East with two older white guys at the bar. They were both complaining about President Obama. It’s his fault, they told me, that the Sunni Muslim terrorist group called ISIS has grown into a serious threat because he withdrew all of our troops from Iraq in 2011.
I pointed out that the government of Iraq wanted our troops to leave. But they both said it didn’t matter what Iraq wanted because we should have kept some troops there to ensure that the thousands of American lives and the trillions of dollars we spent there weren’t wasted.
Their opinions disturbed me because they didn’t seem to be based upon facts. By 2008 the majority of the American public considered the Iraq War a mistake, and there was growing unrest among Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority against the five-year-long U.S. military occupation. In November the George W. Bush administration signed a status of forces agreement (SOFA) with the duly elected government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that called for U.S. combat forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities by July of 2009, and completely leave the country by December 31, 2011.
Democrat Barak Obama won the fall 2008 presidential election, in part, by promising to get U.S. troops out of Iraq as soon as possible, defeating Republican Senator John McCain, who was against any timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal. Obama proceeded to implement Bush’s SOFA. But in the fall of 2010, as the time for a complete U.S. troop withdrawal drew near, Obama initiated negotiations with Iraq for a new SOFA and said he was prepared to keep up to 10,000 U.S. troops in the country. The Iraqis, however, were against the continuation of any restraints upon their national sovereignty, and the Iraqi government said it would not support maintaining legal immunity for U.S. troops – knowing that it would be a deal breaker. So Obama continued to draw down troop numbers until the last ones left in December, 2010, in compliance with Bush’s SOFA.
The guys at the bar repeated the popular complaint that Obama should have realized the removal of U.S. troops would create a dangerous power vacuum in Iraq. But U.S. intelligence assessments indicated the country wasn’t at risk of disintegrating if U.S. troops were withdrawn. And these were objective assessments, not biased ones, like those that were produced by the neoconservative Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
I didn’t have the time or inclination to discuss all of this, so I just responded that we’d already wasted a lot in Iraq without accomplishing much, and Obama had tried to make the best out of the mess Bush had left him. They both agreed that Bush had created the problem, and that the situation in Iraq was nearly hopeless, but they thought we should have stayed there anyway. They repeated their belief that we owed it to the American troops that had fought and died there.
It was time for me to go home, so I couldn’t respond to them, but I still didn’t agree with them. First of all, the mess in Iraq is primarily an extension of the longstanding religious war between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. The continued presence of American troops might have kept a lid on it, but they would have just waited until we left to start fighting again – just like they did after our troops left in 2011. Should U.S. troops have stayed there to referee a stupid religious war that’s been going on for centuries and with no end in sight? I doubt the troops that died in Iraq would want more U.S. deaths there in order to try and give meaning to their sacrifices. All wars involve senseless deaths, and soldiers know this better than anybody. There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t throw good money after bad.
But the thing that bothered me the most about the opinions of these two guys was that they seemed to believe that the United States should behave like an empire and use our military as a disposable resource to do whatever we want across the globe. The U.S. cannot, however, have an imperial foreign policy overseas and continue to be a viable democracy at home. Besides that, trying to run the world is too complicated and expensive to be a practical strategy for any nation these days. President Obama understands that, and that’s why he’s refusing to put American troops on the ground with the current situation in Iraq. Instead, he’s building a coalition of nations and groups that are willing to cooperate with us in the destruction of ISIS. This strategy isn’t a sign of American weakness, it shows that we’ve learned from our mistakes.
In July of 2017 the Iraqi government announced it had liberated the city of Mosul from ISIS forces. In October of 2017 Syrian forces announced they had liberated the city of Raqqa from ISIS forces. Raqqa was the capital of the ISIS government and its capture essentially ended the group’s dream of establishing its own nation. These defeats were inflicted upon ISIS by the coalition assembled by President Barak Obama.
On December 9, 2017, the Iraqi government announced that it had achieved total victory over ISIS forces within Iraq, with help from the U.S. military – primarily from air strikes. It was subsequently reported that the Iraqi government is negotiating with the U.S. to keep an American military presence in their country.
On December 19, 2018, President Donald Trump unilaterally ordered the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops fighting ISIS in neighboring Syria to be out of that country within weeks. Trump tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.” The following day Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned, citing sharp differences with Trump on foreign policy issues.
On December 26, 2018, Pres. Trump made a surprise visit to Iraq to visit U.S. troops stationed at al-Asad Air Base west of Baghdad. He said he had no plans to remove any of the approximately 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, which are part of the international military coalition fighting against ISIS. Trump left without meeting with any Iraqi officials. Iraqi lawmakers took advantage of his visit to call for a vote to demand that U.S. forces leave their country, as they saw little need for them to stay.
On February 1, 2019, CNN reported that ISIS forces had been reduced to a 1.5 square mile area in Syria.
On February 5, 2019, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East testified in the U.S. Senate that he was “not consulted” by Pres. Trump prior to Trump’s announcement that he wanted to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.
On February 5, 2019, the U.S. Senate voted to pass a bill that warned Pres. Trump not to make a “precipitous withdrawal” of American forces from Syria and Afghanistan.
On February 21, 2019, the Trump administration announced that “a small peacekeeping group of about 200” U.S. troops would stay in Syria.