President Bush has now made clear one of his legacies will be as the President who started wars but could not end them. This week he announced the withdrawal of 8000 troops from the Iraq war zone leaving 138,000 behind – more than were in the country prior to the so-called “surge” in January 2007 – thus dropping into the lap of his successor this conflict and the one in Afghanistan.
On September 11th of 2001, a ragtag group calling itself Al Qaeda, hijacked commercial airlines and managed to fly three of them into the two towers at the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington. Over 3000 people perished in the attacks. Al Qaeda was operating from camps in Afghanistan then under the rule of the fundamentalist Taliban government. The United States and NATO allies invaded, toppled the Taliban from power but before the defeat of Al Qaeda was complete, the United States diverted resources and attention to an invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
Although the toppling of the Iraqi Baathist regime went very quickly, it became apparent the Bush administration had not given much or any thought about what to do next. The window of opportunity to lay the groundwork for possible a stable and democratic Iraq was open for a while but the administration moved slowly and squandered opportunity after opportunity after opportunity. Iraq – which did not exist prior to WWI and was created by the British in 1921 – slipped into chaos and overlapping civil wars between Sunnis and Shiites, between different factions of Shiites, and between Arabs and Kurds. Into this chaos slipped an Al Qaeda band (or at least a group calling itself Al Qaeda – it’s not clear how tightly organized Al Qaeda is) into the Anbar Province.
There’s no need for a blow-by-blow recitation of what happened from that point until now. However, to sum up, Al Qaeda was never defeated in Afghanistan, the Afghanistan conflict was never settled and there is a growing threat from the Taliban there, the violence in Iraq has dropped but the experience of the British in Basra during their surge in troops show that gains of this type can be very tentative, and substantive political and economic reforms in Iraq (a.k.a. the “benchmarks for withdrawal”) have been largely forgotten.
George Bush’s leadership as a wartime President has been a complete failure. He has allowed strong personalities in his administration to divert the United States from its number one mission following the 9-11 attacks: defeating Al Qaeda. He has failed to ask the right questions of subordinates before invading Iraq or demanding results afterwards. As Bob Woodward said yesterday on the Terry Gross program, President Bush talks a lot about victory in Iraq but can never define what that means. He wants to claim success but continues to refuse to make hard choices these situations demand. It is this failure of leadership that has weakened our country that John McCain wants to carry on.
Here is today’s New York Times editorial:
President Bush is nothing if not consistent. In a speech on Tuesday, he made it clear that he has no plan at all for ending the war in Iraq and no serious plan for winning the war in Afghanistan.
Mr. Bush wants to have it both ways — claiming success in tamping down violence in Iraq and yet refusing to make the hard choices that would flow from that.
Speaking at the National Defense University, he said he would withdraw only 8,000 more troops from Iraq by the time he leaves office. That would leave 138,000 troops behind — more than were deployed in Iraq before his January 2007 “surge.”
All of this seems to be driven more by what is happening in American battleground states than any battleground in Iraq.
While Mr. Bush and his party’s nominee, John McCain, both want to stay the course until some undefined “victory” is achieved, American voters have run out of patience. Mr. Bush and his advisers are clearly hoping that this token withdrawal will be enough to keep Iraq out of the news and out of the election debate. (Ironically, Mr. McCain who doesn’t want to withdraw any troops at all, had no choice but to declare his support for the president’s plan.)
Iraq’s leaders have also run out of patience, and they are pushing to have American troops out by 2011. That means the next president — whether it is Mr. McCain or Barack Obama — will have to quickly come up with a plan for a safe and responsible exit.
Like Mr. Bush, Iraq’s leaders want to have it both ways. They want to talk about an American withdrawal, but they are still refusing to make the tough political compromises that are their only hope for keeping things under control once the Americans are gone.
All of these months later, and Iraq’s Parliament has still not adopted an oil revenue-sharing law or a law establishing the rules for provincial elections.
So long as an American president refuses to start seriously planning for a withdrawal, Iraq’s leader will continue on this way.
Mr. Bush was right on one point Tuesday when he said that “Afghanistan’s success is critical to the security of America.”
What he didn’t say is that Washington is in real danger of losing the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda — the war Mr. Bush shortchanged again and again for his misadventure in Iraq.
American commanders in Afghanistan need a lot more help than the 4,500 additional troops Mr. Bush has now pledged to send there.
Mr. Obama has offered a sensible blueprint for quickly drawing down American troops in Iraq and bolstering the fight in Afghanistan. After a befuddling silence, Mr. McCain on Tuesday finally agreed that more troops are needed in Afghanistan. What Mr. McCain has yet to explain is where those troops will come from.
Mr. Bush’s disastrous war in Iraq has so overtaxed American forces that the math is painfully simple: Until there is a real drawdown from Iraq, there will not be enough troops to win in Afghanistan.