Who Lost Iraq?

‘The Endgame’ Is A Well Researched, Highly Critical Look at U.S. Policy in Iraq

The Endgame, the latest book from Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, argues that in his haste to extricate the U.S. from Bush’s war of choice in Iraq, Obama may have done al Qaeda a huge favor, writes John Barry.

Lucas Jackson / AP Photo

Who lost Iraq? A premature question, perhaps, but it becomes more salient with each passing month. Violence is rising again in that blood-soaked country. By U.N. count, 2,010 civilians died violently in the first half of this year, against 1,832 in the same period of 2011. Since midsummer the civilian death toll has likely been running somewhere between 300 and 500 a month, with more than twice as many injured.

Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, a group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq, was near disintegration in 2010. Now it is back in force: in one day in late July, the terrorist group launched 35 coordinated attacks across seven provinces, killing 123 people. For the first time in years, the terrorists held ground and did battle with Iraqi security forces—a classic and ominous metric of growing insurgent strength and confidence.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is paralyzed. The leaders of the main groupings barely speak to one another. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s rule grows steadily more authoritarian, less and less concerned with legal niceties. What do appear to concern him, a Shia, are good relations with the Shite rulers of Iran and fears that the fall of Syrian President Bashar al Assad might lead to a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus. So Iranian aircraft now fly regularly through Iraqi airspace to deliver what U.S. intelligence identifies as arms shipments to Assad.

Washington has little political and no military influence over these developments. As Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor charge in their ambitious new history of the Iraq war, The Endgame, Obama’s administration sacrificed political influence by failing in 2010 to insist that the results of Iraq’s first proper election be honored: “When the Obama administration acquiesced in the questionable judicial opinion that prevented Ayad Allawi’s bloc, after it had won the most seats in 2010, from the first attempt at forming a new government, it undermined the prospects, however slim, for a compromise that might have led to a genuinely inclusive and cross-sectarian government.”

Military influence fell victim to similar inaction. The Obama administration failed to get Maliki’s agreement to allow some residual force to remain in Iraq after the general U.S. withdrawal at the end of 2011. The Kurds wanted a continuing American presence; so did the Sunnis; even Maliki considered it might be a useful deterrent to the Baathist resurgence that he feared. The force would also be an insurance against a resurgence of al Qaeda. And, crucially, as both the Pentagon and State Department saw it, a continuing American presence might give the reassurance that Iraq’s divided communities needed to overcome their fears of each other. But negotiations failed, and Gordon and Trainor—while acknowledging that a deal “might have proven impossible under the best of circumstances”—consign much of the blame to Obama and his staff.

“The [incoming] administration had a fresh chance to re-engage with Iraq’s leaders and shape its policies ... Obama did not act decisively on that chance, choosing instead to take a more hands-off approach to Iraq by focusing on winding down American involvement rather than energetically trying to shape the situation he had inherited.

“This decision was characteristic of those Obama made on Iraq: he saw America’s involvement there not as an opportunity, or even as containing opportunities, but rather as a leftover minefield, a path out of which had to be charted as quickly as possible.”

Gordon and Trainor give a piercing illustration of Obama’s hands-off approach. Bush had had a weekly video conference with Maliki; he grasped that influencing Maliki could be done only in the embrace of a reassuringly close relationship. In the first 10 months of 2011—while negotiations over a possible residual presence of U.S. troops dragged on—Obama reached out to videoconference with Maliki just twice.

The Endgame runs—well, marches—from the occupation in 2003 to the spring of this year. More than three-quarters of its 691 pages of narrative explore the debates and decisions of George W. Bush’s presidency. After so many memoirs and instant-histories, is there really anything new to say about that period? Gordon and Trainor do pay their way with nuggets of discovery; but their most valuable contribution is perspective. The bestselling accounts of America’s Iraq engagement have tended to concentrate either on the politics of Washington or on the military narrative in the field. Gordon and Trainor set themselves the task of interweaving the two, showing how events in Iraq influenced the debates inside the Bush and Obama administrations, and vice versa.

America’s engagement with Iraq seems likely to enter the history books as a canonical example of the old adage that ignorance trumps good intentions every time. The Bush years unfold as a chronicle of illusions expensively pursued, and realism only reluctantly accepted.

The Obama years have demonstrated something close to willful ignorance. (Obama chose as his new ambassador to Baghdad a foreign service officer with a distinguished career in eastern Europe and east Asia but zero knowledge of the Arab world. This new arrival promptly staffed the embassy with old colleagues, all sharing his ignorance of Iraq. The only Arabist with real knowledge of the country was a holdover from the previous administration. Gordon and Trainor record that he was “largely marginalized and even chided … when he met with his many Iraqi contacts;” he quit after a few months.)

Contrary to Bush’s dream, Iraqis were not uniformly thirsting for democracy. Contrary to the conviction of Bush’s first viceroy in Baghdad, Paul Bremer, Iraqis of whatever persuasion did not appreciate efforts by a Western army to remake their society at the point of a gun.

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The military were the first not merely to realize things were going wrong but to come up with alternative courses of action. Gordon and Trainor reveal that as the insurgency gathered momentum in 2003, a U.S. military intelligence cell in Baghdad proposed the notion of working with the traditional agents in Iraqi society: the tribes and their leaders. The plan was loftily rejected by one of Bremer’s aides (who later ascended to the White House’s National Security Council staff): tribes were not envisaged as a formal part of Iraq’s future political or security structure. Not until four years later—Bremer long gone—did new U.S. commanders embrace the tribes.

As late as 2006, Gordon and Trainor record, U.S. strategy against the swelling insurgencies remained minimalist: do enough to stabilize the situation until Iraqi forces under training could take over. They reveal that in August 2005, the U.S. commanders on the spot—Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey—realized that this strategy was failing. The insurgencies were too big. If U.S. troops couldn’t handle them, tyro Iraqi forces would stand no chance. A review by a team of military and civilian analysts recommended that the U.S. military gird up for an aggressive counter-insurgency strategy. The recommendations reached desks in the White House and Number Ten in London, to no effect. “It was not until Iraq approached the precipice of an all-out civil war that the White House was prepared to undertake a major course correction,” Gordon and Trainor say.

Even then, Bush’s “surge” of January 2007—what Gordon and Trainor call his “bold but belated” decision to send another 20,000 troops into Iraq—was almost too little, too late. Bush—and Iraq—were saved by the virtuosity of two generals, David Petraeus and Ray Odierno, and the teams they assembled, back-stopped by a new defense secretary, Robert Gates. (Petraeus’s regular letters to Gates, reporting candidly on the evolving situation, are among the trove of documents Gordon and Trainor have amassed.)

“As a military event,” Gordon and Trainor conclude, “the surge succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation in tamping down sectarian violence, breaking the back of al Qaeda in Iraq, and then, in an unexpected final chapter… damaging and sidelining the [Shia] Mahdi Army.” But, they point out, this was only a partial victory: “The second aim of the surge, the one that remained unfulfilled to the end according to the military’s own report card, was to push Iraq’s factionalized government, in which ministries themselves were battlegrounds in the civil war, to reform.”

So Obama, coming into office in January 2009, “inherited from Bush a military situation that was vastly improved, but a political environment that was still riven by divisions and which was also developing a new and menacing facet in Maliki’s tendency toward authoritarianism.” The burden of the critique Gordon and Trainor make of Obama’s stewardship is that he mishandled this political challenge.

What gives weight to these judgments is the span of research underpinning them. Michael Gordon, chief military correspondent of The New York Times, and Bernard Trainor, a retired Marine Corps three-star general, took three years to produce The Endgame. In a broader sense, the book is the fruits of a decade of labor and 20 years of collaboration. The pair first partnered to write The Generals’ War in 1995, a commander’s-eye view of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm that liberated Kuwait. In the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, they teamed up again to produce Cobra II in 2007.

Now comes The Endgame: its 691 pages of narrative are buttressed by 68 pages of source notes. The hundreds of interviews cited are no more than to be expected—though Gordon and Trainor did what most accounts of the Iraq war have not done, which is to get the views and recollections of Maliki and a slew of Iraqi politicians. More startling is the volume and range of classified, even highly classified, documents they managed to procure: CIA reports and analyses; after-action reports of raids by the secretive Joint Special Operations Command; interrogation transcripts; embassy cables; military material galore. It’s an impressive haul, and one that the Obama administration, determined to crack down on leaks, will not welcome.

Ultimately, The Endgame invites the question of whether President Obama threw his support behind the wrong war. In his 2008 campaign, Obama famously distinguished what he saw as the Good War in Afghanistan, the war of necessity, from the Bad War of choice in Iraq. America would win in Afghanistan, he pledged, but he would bring U.S. engagement in Iraq to “a responsible close.” Obama was swimming with the Democratic Party tide, of course; but an exchange he had with David Petraeus even before he was elected revealed Obama’s own strategic thinking. Obama traveled to Baghdad with a couple of fellow senators in July 2008. Gordon and Trainor give a fly-on-the-wall account of Obama’s exchanges with Petraeus, an Iraq veteran then commanding all coalition forces there.

“As the session wound down, Obama returned to his main theme: the need to expedite the withdrawal from Iraq to free up more forces for Afghanistan … Obama said: 'Afghanistan is the central front in the war on terror.' Petraeus challenged the argument. 'Actually, Senator, Iraq is what Al Qaeda says is the central front.' Al Qaeda may not have been in Iraq when the war started, but Petraeus had long argued in his letters to [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates that, now that the fight was on, Al Qaeda’s leadership viewed Iraq as a prize and was determined to rout the Americans and expand its influence in Mesopotamia. Obama thought the general was missing the point. 'The Al Qaeda leadership is not here in Iraq. They are there,' he said, pointing on a map to Pakistan. For Petraeus, the argument was a statement of the obvious and rather academic. Assuming that Al Qaeda’s top leadership was hiding in Pakistan, pulling forces out of Iraq would not help. The United States was not going to invade Pakistan … Obama questioned whether Al Qaeda in Iraq presented a threat to the United States … Petraeus challenged that argument. A terrorist attack in Scotland had been linked to Iraqi terrorists, and there was a potential for similar attacks if Al Qaeda in Iraq was not pursued … [Petraeus] also noted the potential for AQI to expand its influence to Syria and Lebanon ...”

Four years on, tough decisions by President Obama have brought the death of al Qaeda’s founder and drone strikes so unrelenting that surviving al Qaeda leaders have been all but driven from Pakistan. Afghanistan teeters on the brink of civil war; but so few believe this threatens American security or even first-order national interests that Obama has felt able to decree the pull-out of U.S. forces from that war too by 2014.

Washington is focused again on the Middle East. The civil war in Syria has drawn in Iraq and Iran and threatens to spread violence into Lebanon and even Jordan. Opportunistic as ever, al Qaeda is reasserting itself across the region. Petraeus was right, and Obama was wrong. The Arab heartland remains the central front in the war on terror.