The notion of insufficient military follow-up leads Hiatt to recite one of the most persistent myths about the Iraq War: that the war was won at the time that George W. Bush left office and that Barack Obama snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by withdrawing U.S. troops too soon. It is not surprising that this myth has been relied on as heavily as it has. For the fervent crowd that was pro-Iraq War and is now anti-Obama, the myth is a twofer: a way to attack Obama as well as a way to relieve the mountain of cognitive dissonance that comes from having thought the invasion of Iraq was a swell idea but then seeing the violent mess that resulted from the invasion. It is remarkable how much purveyors of the myth express it in terms that are so patently divorced from reality. In a public debate in which I participated last year, the neocon pundit Bret Stephens stated that Iraq was “at peace” as of 2009. Hiatt's formulation is that at the time President Obama was withdrawing troops from Iraq, the country had achieved “unity and relative stability.” To speak of Iraqi unity at this time is a joke; the country was at least as fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines as it has ever been. And as for being at peace, the number of Iraqis killed in the continuing civil war in the year 2009 was around 5,000—which by way of comparison is more than the total number of U.S. troops killed there in eight and a half years of war. . . .Yes, the surge coincided with a major reduction in killing in Iraq, from 26,000 in 2007 to 10,000 in 2008 to 5,000 in 2009. But the point of the surge was to achieve political reconciliation, and that never happened.
No one perpetuating these myths explains why there should be any reason to expect that keeping ten thousand or fifteen thousand or some such number of U.S. troops in Iraq for however long they would be there could have accomplished what 160,000 troops and more than eight years of war did not. Nor is it explained how any of this constitutes a criticism of the Obama administration when it was implementing a troop withdrawal schedule that had been negotiated by its predecessor.
According to the legend of the surge, Iraq’s collapse stems from Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops at the end of 2011. “If we’d had a residual force of 10,000 to 12,000,” Senator Lindsey Graham said last year, “I am totally convinced there would not have been a rise of al-Qaeda.” In reality, the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, began persecuting the Sunnis—thus laying the groundwork for their embrace of ISIS—long before American troops departed the country. As early as 2007, writes Emma Sky, who advised both Petraeus and his successor, General Ray Odierno, “the U.S. military was frustrated by what they viewed as the schemes of Maliki and his inner circle to actively sabotage our efforts to draw Sunnis out of the insurgency.” . . .Note that even Peter Beinart, writing against glorifying the surge, makes the mistake of saying that Obama "decided" to remove U.S. troops. The Iraqi government demanded that the troops be removed -- that is, demanded that we keep to the withdrawal schedule agreed to by the Bush administration in 2008 -- so Obama could only have kept troops in the country by defying the government that we installed at such great cost.
The tragedy of post-surge Iraq has its roots in America’s failure to make the Iraqi government more inclusive—a failure that began under Bush and deepened under Obama. . . .
The fact is, the U.S. failed to stop Maliki’s slide into sectarian tyranny even when it still had 100,000 troops patrolling Iraqi soil. That’s because America had already lost much of its leverage. Once the surge succeeded in reducing violence, Maliki no longer needed American troops to keep him in power. By 2010, U.S. aid to Iraq had dropped dramatically. Iraq was buying American weapons, but had the oil revenue to buy them elsewhere if America stopped selling. And the Obama administration could not pressure Maliki by threatening to withdraw U.S. troops, because Maliki wanted them gone. So did most of the Iraqi people.
I think the surge myth is a very dangerous one. In 2008 most of the country, including many Republicans, understood that the Iraq war was a terrible, costly mistake, and that understanding was putting a real brake on American adventurism. If we let the belief take hold that Iraq was a swell place until Obama came along, we could easily be led back into another comparable disaster in Iran or Syria. We must remember what the political juggernaut that drove us to war in 2002 was like, and what disasters it led to, so we can resist the next time someone tries the same game.