Skip to main content

Hawks are deluded about Iraq

By Ted Galen Carpenter
January 14, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Fighting in Iraq's Anbar Province causes consternation among policy leaders
  • Ted Carpenter: Conservative hawks are vocal in criticizing the Obama administration
  • He says critics are wrong to say that we should have kept U.S. troops in the region
  • Carpenter: Let's be grateful U.S. policy is not allowing more Americans to die in Iraq

Editor's note: Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books, including "The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and the Danger to America."

(CNN) -- The eruption of fighting in Iraq's Anbar Province is causing much consternation and recrimination in U.S. foreign policy circles.

Conservative hawks, including Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, are especially vocal in criticizing the Obama administration's Iraq policy. They argue that the administration's fecklessness has opened Iraq to an al Qaeda offensive that now has the terrorist group's flag flying over portions of Falluja and Ramadi, two cities subdued during the Bush administration at great cost in blood and treasure.

If Obama had not foolishly withdrawn the remaining U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, hawkish critics insist, Washington would now have far greater ability to prevent the country's alarming slide into turmoil.

Ted Galen Carpenter
Ted Galen Carpenter

There are several problems with that argument. First, it was Bush, not Obama, who negotiated the original agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that promised the full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011. The Obama administration would have had either to renege on a formal agreement, thus displaying contempt for the sovereignty of a democratic Iraq that the United States helped create, or somehow induce the al-Maliki government to sign a new agreement allowing American troops to remain.

Second, Obama administration officials did try to negotiate a new "status of forces" agreement to enable a limited number of troops (perhaps 10,000 to 20,000) to stay in Iraq. However, al-Maliki insisted the only way he would even consider approving such a pact would be if Washington agreed that U.S. forces were subject to Iraqi law. The U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, has been wary of consenting to such provisions even in stable, Western democratic countries that host American troops.

The United States has steadfastly refused to do so in countries like Iraq with shaky, corrupt political systems and dubious legal systems. One ought to ask hawks if they believe Obama should have exposed American military personnel to the tender mercies of Iraq's court system. If not, they must concede that Obama adopted the right position in refusing to make such a concession.

McCain: Send Gen. Petraeus back to Iraq
Fareed's Take: Why is Iraq so violent?

Third, the idea of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq was profoundly unpopular among both Iraqis and Americans. Public opinion polls taken in 2011 showed a clear majority of Americans believed the Iraq War was a mistake and did not want U.S. forces to stay in that country.

Likewise, by rather wide margins, Sunni and Shiite Arab populations (who vehemently disagreed about numerous issues) were in agreement on one point: They wanted all foreign forces out of their country. The only faction that favored a continued U.S. military presence was the Kurdish population in the north. Even then, the primary reason the Kurds wanted troops to remain was to help prevent Baghdad from trying to suppress Kurdistan's increasingly bold de facto independence. Keeping U.S. forces in Iraq would have put American personnel on the front lines of that tense, emotional confrontation.

Those troops would today also be on the front lines of an even nastier confrontation between al-Maliki's Shiite-led government and Sunni insurgents in Anbar. It is a grotesque oversimplification to assume that al Qaeda is the source of all the trouble there.

Even before the latest fighting broke out, bloodshed in Iraq was on the rise. The death toll from political (mainly Sunni-Shiite sectarian) violence in 2013 was the highest in five years. With an ostentatiously independent Kurdistan in the north, and now a direct military challenge from the Sunni heartland to al-Maliki's rule, Iraq shows signs of extreme instability, if not impending fragmentation.

Critics who blast Obama for not keeping American troops in that snake pit are badly misguided. They cling to the notion that Washington's decision to invade and occupy Iraq was a great success until Obama administration blunders undercut that achievement.

It may be a comforting delusion to hawks, but it is a delusion. We should all be grateful that Washington is no longer in a position to add new American military victims to the toll of more than 4,400 who already perished.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ted Galen Carpenter.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1952 GMT (0352 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT