Yes, it is true that there was no al-Qaida in Iraq when George W. Bush took office. But it is equally true that there was essentially no al-Qaida in Iraq remaining when Barack Obama took office.
Which makes Bush responsible for the terrible costs incurred to defeat the 2003-09 jihadist war engendered by his invasion. We can debate forever whether those costs were worth it, but what is not debatable is Obama’s responsibility for the return of the Islamist insurgency that had been routed by the time he became president.
By 2009, al-Qaida in Iraq had not just been decimated but humiliated by the American surge and the Anbar Awakening. Here were aggrieved Sunnis, having ferociously fought the Americans who had overthrown 80 years of Sunni hegemony, now reversing allegiance and joining the infidel invader in crushing, indeed extirpating from Iraq, their fellow Sunnis of al-Qaida.
At the same time, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki turned the Iraqi army against radical Shiite militias from Basra all the way north to Baghdad.
The result? “A sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” That’s Obama in December 2011 describing the Iraq we were leaving behind. He called it “an extraordinary achievement.”
Which Obama proceeded to throw away.
Obama’s one task was to conclude a status-of-forces agreement to solidify the gains. He failed. His excuse was his inability to get immunity for U.S. soldiers. But the real problem was Obama’s reluctance to maintain any significant presence in Iraq.
Moreover, as historian Max Boot has pointed out, Obama insisted on parliamentary ratification, which the Iraqis explained was not just impossible but unnecessary. So Obama ordered a full withdrawal. And with it disappeared U.S. influence in curbing sectarianism, mediating among factions and providing both intelligence and tactical advice to Iraqi forces now operating on their own.
The result was predictable. And predicted. Overnight, Iran and its promotion of Shiite supremacy became the dominant influence in Iraq. The day after the U.S. departure, al-Maliki ordered the arrest of the Sunni vice president. He cut off funding for the Sons of Iraq, the Sunnis who had fought with us against al-Qaida. And subsequently so persecuted and alienated Sunnis that they were ready to welcome back al-Qaida in Iraq – rebranded in its Syrian refuge as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – as the lesser of two evils.
But the jihadist revival is the result of a double Obama abdication: creating a vacuum not just in Iraq but in Syria. Obama dithered and speechified during the early days of the Syrian revolution, before the jihadists had arrived, when the secular revolt was systematically advancing on the Damascus regime.
Hezbollah, Iran and Russia helped the regime survive. Meanwhile, a jihadist enclave (including remnants of the once-routed al-Qaida in Iraq) developed in large swaths of northern and eastern Syria. They thrived on massive outside support while the secular revolutionaries foundered waiting vainly for American help.
Faced with a de facto jihadi state spanning both countries, Obama now has little choice but to try to re-create overnight, from scratch and in miniature, the kind of U.S. presence he abjured three years ago
His announcement Thursday that he is sending 300 military advisers is the beginning of that re-creation – a pale substitute but the only option Obama has left himself. The leverage he forfeited will be hard to reclaim. But it’s our only chance to keep Iraq out of the hands of the Sunni jihadists of ISIS and the Shiite jihadists of Tehran.