A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

(Hot) air war rewrites history on ISIS

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Aug. 20, 21 or 22

For all the hot air, August 6’s Republican debates didn’t really address many key issues, from income inequality and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to climate change and campaign finance (although Donald Trump hinted at contributors’ expectations from their donations). Instead, a key refrain was blaming President Obama for “losing” Iraq and letting the Islamic State (ISIS) emerge from the remnants of al-Qaida.

The assertions were flawed or false.

Two days later, Obama expressed some surprise. Asked if he regretted withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 given how fast ISIS took over parts of the nation, he said, “What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up – as if this was my decision.

“Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government,” Obama said. “In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government, and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system.”

True, Obama wanted a withdrawal (campaigning on it), but it really was less his choice than Iraq’s – and George W. Bush’s.

Three days after Obama’s comment, Jeb Bush doubled down on GOP presidential candidates’ phony claims about Obama (and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, of course.)

“That premature withdrawal was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill,” Bush said.

Reality check: By 2006, three years after U.S. troops toppled Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a mess. A mostly Sunni uprising against Americans and the governing Shiite Muslims the U.S. installed sparked widespread sectarian bloodshed. By that December – almost two years before Obama was elected – the “Iraq Study Group,” including Republican stalwarts such as James Baker, Ed Meese and Alan Simpson, criticized Bush’s strategy in the region. The group called for withdrawing almost all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2008, starting dialogue with Iran, and stepping up work on Arab-Israeli peace.

The next month, President Bush – who misled the United States into war in Iraq in 2003 – changed the strategy, sending 30,000 more troops there (“the surge”) to focus on protecting civilians rather than killing rebels. The new goal: reconcile Muslim sects to stabilize the country. After Sunni leaders increasingly opposed to al-Qaida were paid to fight those terrorists, Iraq quieted some. There was even a ceasefire with Shiite rebel Moqtada al-Sadr’s forces.

Then Iraq’s internal politics sabotaged reconciliation. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, attacked Sunnis, driving them into the ragtag army of Syrian Sunni insurgents that became ISIS. Maliki also wanted the United States out, refusing to extend the Status of Forces Agreement to keep U.S. troops deployed there. Also, with renewed oil revenues, he was less dependent on the U.S. for armaments or other aid. By August of 2008 – five months before Obama’s inauguration – security analysts warned of “a gathering storm… the country may spiral back into chaos.”

All that matters little to GOP candidates. Trump pledged to use the military (to cut off the oil ISIS sells). Bush was slightly less warlike, not advocating for more troops (like Sen. Lindsey Graham’s call to send up to 20,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria) but proposing a “no-fly” zone on the Iraqi-Syrian border, closer partnerships with Sunni, Turk and Kurd allies, and increased defense spending.

“We do not need – and our friends do not ask for – a major commitment of American combat forces,” Bush said. “But we do need to convey that we are serious, that we are determined to help local forces take back their country.”

That’s not much different than Obama, whose similar ideas ran into opposition on Capitol Hill, where Republicans insist on reducing the Pentagon along with all government spending (and oppose almost everything Obama proposes).

On the other hand, the relatively independent Rand Paul criticized “knee-jerk reactionaries” in the Republican Party who think “war is always the answer.” Paul told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program hosted by former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough that the GOP’s hawks, not President Obama, are the ones responsible for the current turmoil in the Middle East and the creation of the Islamic State.

The rewriting of history is starting to mirror 2003’s fallacy, that deposing Saddam would be a bloodless breeze.

More hot air.

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