As we all struggle to peer ahead to figure out the future of America's role in Iraq, I'm delighted to present this guest post from my friends and colleagues, Derek Chollett and Jim Goldgeier, drawn from the arguments and research presented in their excellent new book America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11. As always, guest posters represent only themselves and I might agree or disagree and am not telling for now.
The Third Iraq Hand-Off
Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier
Derek Chollet is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. James Goldgeier is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at George Washington University. They are the authors of America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11.
Thanks very much to Marc Lynch for giving us an opportunity to share our views on Abu Aardvark. We’d like to put a larger frame on the discussion about Iraq than is normally done in this political season, taking a step back to think forward about what it means for the future of America in the world.
All the chatter about whether the surge is working or not, or whether McCain will make Iraq the new South Korea, or how many troops Obama could really pull out within 16 months or how he might “refine” his proposals is important, but misses a broader point. As we argue in our new book, America Between the Wars, when we look at Iraq, we can’t simply think about what has occurred since March 2003. Iraq has been front and center in American foreign policy for nearly two decades, ever since Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in August 1990. In January 2009, we will be facing the third presidential hand-off of the Iraq problem. Whether Obama or McCain wins in November, this third Iraq hand-off has to be the last.
George H.W. Bush was able to forge an international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein’s troops out of Kuwait in the spring of 1991, but he left the Iraqi leader in power. After all, as his Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney put it later in 1991 when asked why the United States had not gone to Baghdad to oust Saddam, “I think that was a quagmire we did not want to get involved in.” With no-fly-zones in the north and south, and a sanctions regime in place, Bush 41 handed an unresolved Iraq problem off to Bill Clinton. Bush even bombed Iraq several times just days before Clinton’s inauguration. On January 13, 1993, more than 100 American, British and French fighters bombed Iraqi air-defense targets; five days later, forty-five TLAMs launched at sea destroyed a factory that had been a key part of Iraq’s nuclear program. These attacks were followed by further jet-fighter air strikes the next day. All were justified by Saddam’s continuing defiance of the numerous strictures the U.N. Security Council had placed on his behavior. And the military moves were fully supported by the incoming Democratic president.
Then came the Clinton years. Madeleine Albright told us that it was hard to focus on issues other than Iraq when she was ambassador to the United Nations because of the regular reviews of Iraq’s compliance with Security Council resolutions and the work required to hold the international community together. Clinton’s first use of force was in Iraq in the summer of 1993, when the U.S. bombed the Iraq intelligence headquarters in Baghdad in retaliation for the attempted assassination of George H.W. Bush on the former president’s visit to Kuwait in April. The following year, the U.S. sent 50,000 troops to the Gulf in response to an Iraqi buildup near the Kuwaiti border and kept 5,000 in Kuwait afterward just to play it safe.
In December 1998 came Operation Desert Fox, the culmination of the Clinton administration’s confrontation with Iraq. As the president said to the American people as he justified his decision to bomb Iraq, “Heavy as they are, the costs of action must be weighed against the price of inaction. If Saddam defies the world and we fail to respond, we will face a far greater threat in the future. Saddam will strike again at his neighbors. He will make war on his own people. And mark my words, he will develop weapons of mass destruction. He will deploy them, and he will use them.”
But despite official policy in favor of regime change, the Clinton administration, in the words of former Deputy National Security Adviser James Steinberg, “did not contemplate using force to change the regime.” Clinton did tell George W. Bush in the transition that it was “one of his two or three greatest regrets” that he was unable to find the right answer for the challenge Iraq posed. And thus Clinton handed off the Iraq problem to Bush.
And here we are again. George W. Bush will leave it to the next American president to figure out how to produce a stable Iraq, and what level of military, economic, and political engagement is necessary to fulfill American interests. Of course, because of Bush 43’s many mistakes, as have been dissected so ably on this blog and elsewhere, Iraq in 2009 will pose challenges of a far greater magnitude than those faced in 1993 or 2001.
Putting Iraq in this broader context is important for understanding how we got here. But it also makes it even more compelling to argue that America has to extricate itself from the country, and why the third Iraq hand-off has to be the last.
The United States has been obsessed and entangled with Iraq for eighteen years. Iraq is an important country in an important region. But the America faces numerous challenges in the world. The rise of Asia is probably the greatest geo-strategic problem we will face in the next twenty to thirty years. Climate change threatens to alter our planet. And we are trying to come to grips with the ongoing impact of globalization. Then of course there is terrorism, WMD proliferation, Iran, North Korea, the war in Afghanistan, Russia, and energy security. The George W. Bush administration was consumed by Iraq. When Obama talks about the resources devoted to Iraq that could be spent on fixing things here at home, he is only getting to part of the problem. Iraq has made it impossible to carry out a foreign policy to meet all of these challenges effectively – in fact, it has made it only harder. And thus whether it is Obama or McCain, the next American president cannot afford to have his foreign policy also consumed by Iraq.