One of the quirks of democracy is that newly elected presidents inherit the wars of their predecessors, entanglements that they might deeply oppose. President Obama’s election was, in many ways, a referendum on George W. Bush’s ill-advised invasion of Iraq. The fact that Obama had opposed the 2003 invasion as a “dumb war” from the very beginning helped him prevail over Hillary Clinton in securing his party’s nomination. In 2008, the year Obama was first elected, 63 percent of the American public saw the invasion as a mistake, including many Republicans. No one can argue that Obama lacked a mandate from the American people to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2011.
But here’s the problem: Public opinion is fickle. Our ideas about what’s important swing wildly from a lost Malaysian airliner, to kidnapped girls in Nigeria to protesters in Ukraine — and then Hong Kong — as fast as we can change the channel. After two American journalists were beheaded, 73 percent of Americans favored bombing ISIS. But just two months earlier, only 39 percent felt we should intervene.
While public support is needed to sustain a war, a president can’t base policy on pleasing the public. Good policy takes decades to bear fruit. Its success is rarely measured by big headlines. In fact, the absence of news can be the best indicator that a goal has finally been achieved. How often do we think about the 30,000 US soldiers who remain in South Korea? In 1950, that war dominated the American consciousness. In 1953, its outcome seemed deeply unsatisfying: a cease-fire that left the communist regime in North Korea, and a corrupt dictatorship in South Korea. But today, more than six decades later, democracy and prosperity have bloomed in South Korea, thanks to US troops we rarely hear about.
Success in foreign policy requires patience. Although history will almost certainly judge the 2003 invasion of Iraq to be a strategic blunder, the downside of Obama’s decision to withdraw in 2011 has become grimly evident. While the Obama administration did attempt to broker an agreement to leave a residual force in Iraq, that effort seems to have been halfhearted. According to the recently published memoir of former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta, the deal languished “without the president’s active advocacy.”
No one can say for sure whether a few thousand American troops left in Iraq would have stopped the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But it’s clear that the United States played a crucial stabilizing role in Iraq, as a referee and guarantor of political compromises. After the United States withdrew both its army and its political engagement, American-brokered compromises fell apart. It is worth noting that the US withdrawal stunned Iraq’s leaders. Even though they publicly demanded it, they never expected the United States — which had invested so much in blood and treasure — to walk away to the extent it did.
The lesson of the mess in Iraq is that the United States must seek to avoid the same mistakes in Afghanistan. When Afghan president Hamid Karzai refused to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow US troops to remain, the Obama administration began considering the so-called “zero” option, which would pull all US soldiers out by the end of 2014. Luckily, Afghanistan had an election that yielded a new unity government, albeit a fragile one, that includes Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as president and his rival Abdullah Abdullah as chief executive officer. Their government swiftly signed the bilateral security pact.
But the Obama administration still appears to be on track to exit from Afghanistan. This is not a war he wants to pass on to his successor. But like Iraq’s government, the fragile truce between Ahmadzai and Abdullah was only forged because of American diplomacy. If the United States fully disengages now, Afghanistan could split, like Iraq.
“We must keep between 15,000 to 20,000 US soldiers and capacity-building trainers in Afghanistan, otherwise ‘ISIS II’ will emerge there,” said Hassan Abbas, professor at the National Defense University in Washington and author of the book “The Taliban Revival.”
Currently, Obama administration officials talk of leaving 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, a number that is slated to be cut in half by the end of 2015. That’s likely to be too many too soon. Wise foreign policy calls for being just as cautious about getting out of conflicts as getting in them.