A National Review article by Mario Loyola offered a scathing critique of President Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, essentially casting all blame for the chaos over there, including the rapid ascension of ISIS, at his feet. This is largely unfair. Although the current President does hold some responsibility for current events, the lion's share of the blame still falls on his predecessor, President Bush, for the decision to invade Iraq in the first.
Interestingly, however, Loyola does touch upon a largely unspoken truth, one which I've yet to see offered in any publication, left or right: the real reason we invaded in 2003. Not WMD, or to liberate Iraq, or even for their oil.
"We had gained, at a frightful cost in lives and treasure, a priceless strategic asset, namely the possibility of Iraq as a strong military ally, hosting U.S. forces as long as we needed to keep them there, engaged against the extremists in Syria and Iran, as well as al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their sympathizers among the Arab states."
This was not a happy accident. This was the reason we invaded. And for once, I'd like to see it addressed more than in passing. The truth is that had the Bush administration been honest with the American people about their reasons for invading Iraq, the people would not have gotten behind it. Congress would not have gotten behind it. They would have told President Bush to go soak his head. And it is because the Bush administration was dishonest about the reasons for the invasion that the American people eventually turned on the war and elected Barack Obama on his promise to bring the troops home. So there's that.
In withdrawing the troops from Iraq, President Obama was keeping his central campaign promise. The Bush administration and their acolytes constantly forget that this is not Rome, wherein Caesar enacts his will and the people love him for it. Presidents are still accountable to the people and cannot govern without their consent. The people wanted the troops out of Iraq. End of story.
But onto Loyola's central argument, which is that the Iraq War is essentially a proxy war between Wahabbists in Saudi Arabia and Shi'ites in Iran, started by the power vacuum created by the removal of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. The Americans had effectively pushed both sides back and had created a tentative peace, but one which would require our continued presence in the country as a mediator between the various squabbling factions.
Again, this was not a happy accident. Intelligence analysts and really anybody with any knowledge of geopolitics in the region knew that Iran and Saudi Arabia would angle for the upper hand in Iraq. I'd go so far as to say that the Bush administration was counting on it as a continuing justification for our presence in the region. This is, effectively, the role that the British Empire played when they were in Iraq: impartial mediator, and in Loyola's own words, "the strongest tribe". The purpose of eliminating Saddam Hussein's regime was precisely to create that power vacuum with the intent of filling it ourselves.
Meanwhile, we'd have all these troops in Iraq… all dressed up, and nowhere to go. Except Tehran. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Loyola skirts on the edges of telling the truth in his article, and he is correct that the withdrawal of American troops created a new power vacuum, which immediately began the same war all over again. President Obama ought to have taken greater care not to allow that to happen. But the truth is that this power vacuum does exist, and it will be filled by someone. Unless Loyola is suggesting that we send all U.S. troops back to Iraq and resume our role as imperial overlords, the struggle for power will continue. ISIS has come to stake its claim in the region, and the Iraqi government we left behind isn't strong enough to stop them. Iran will act to preserve their interests, as will Iraq's other neighbors. The only way to prevent this from spiraling into a full scale regional war is for somebody big enough to stop ISIS to come in and impose its will on them.
President Bush effectively created a situation wherein the United States could not leave Iraq without bloody chaos ensuing. Conservatives can wave the bloody shirt of "losing all we gained" in Iraq all they want, but all of this blood is on their hands, not those who begged them not to invade in the first place.