In the wake of the Iraq War, the stab-in-the-back myth has resurfaced. This time, conservatives place the blame squarely on President Obama. As the story goes, George W. Bush’s “surge” of American troops in Iraq achieved a victory, before Obama fecklessly withdrew U.S. soldiers, transforming success into failure and triggering the rise of ISIS.
Senator Lindsey Graham said, “When it comes to blaming people about Iraq, the person I blame is Barack Obama, not George W. Bush.” Jeb Bush said the president retreated from Iraq in “blind haste” and concluded: “Rushing away from danger can be every bit as unwise as rushing into danger, and the costs have been grievous.” The conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer claimed that the Iraq War had been “won,” only for the victory to be “tossed away” by the president.
Like many myths, the stab-in-the-back combines an ounce of truth with a pound of exaggeration. In 1918, German sailors mutinied and the country collapsed in revolution, giving the superficial appearance of a military betrayed at home. But the war effort was already lost, as newly arriving American forces overwhelmed German troops. In 1975, the American will to fight in Vietnam had indeed eroded. But no victory was possible. By that point, the United States had lost nearly 60,000 soldiers in a campaign to prop up an illegitimate regime in Saigon. How would pouring even more resources into the Asian sinkhole serve American interests?
Today, one can rightly criticize Obama’s Iraq policy. Ideally, the United States would have left in place a small successor force to help train the Iraqi military. Instead, pursuing a narrative of extrication from Middle Eastern wars, Obama took his eye off Iraq. As U.S. troops withdrew from the country between 2009 and 2011, Vice President Joe Biden visited Baghdad seven times—so frequently, one U.S. general joked, that Biden was eligible for Iraqi citizenship. But after the last soldiers departed at the end of 2011, Biden never went back, symbolizing the White House’s diminishing attention on Iraq. This was a critical period when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deepened Iraq’s sectarian divisions, and violence escalated in neighboring Syria. The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart summed up Obama’s policy: “Let Maliki do whatever he wants so long as he keeps Iraq off the front page.”
And yet Obama didn’t turn victory into defeat. For a start, there was no victory. In 2009, the troop surge had helped pull Iraq back from the brink of utter catastrophe, but the country remained extremely fragile and deeply traumatized. “Committing murder in Iraq is casual,” said one Iraqi official, “like drinking a morning cup of coffee.”
Furthermore, when Republicans berate Obama for withdrawing American troops, they neglect to mention that Obama inherited a timetable negotiated by the Bush administration for a complete U.S. exit. Could Obama have convinced the Iraqis to switch direction and accept a follow-on force? Here, opinion differs widely. It’s fair to say that the White House was internally divided about a successor force, and didn’t push as hard as it could have. But a rising tide of Iraqi nationalism made striking such a deal extremely challenging. When I interviewed John Abizaid, the former head of Central Command, for my book on U.S. military failure, he told me that an American successor force was “not in the cards at all.”