Robert M. Gates is probably the only secretary of defense who can claim to have had a “honeymoon” for his entire four and one-half years of service, serving under a Republican president, George W. Bush, and then a Democratic one, Barack Obama. Gates has written a book called “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.” As borne out in his book, Gates had clear goals to bring a lasting positive outcome to the War in Iraq. He has both praise and criticism for the presidents he served.
Gates admits the Bush administration made many major mistakes in getting us involved in the war in Iraq, but he also found President Bush willing to listen, and a much better leader, especially in the last two years of his term when Gates served as his “secdef,” than he has been given credit for. Gates never saw the military as trying to “jam” Bush deeper into commitment in Iraq and Afghanistan, as opposed to how Obama and his advisers feel about Obama’s term.
The former secretary of defense is probably saying “I told you so” as he observes the Sunni Islamic State resurgence in Syria and Iraq. His goal as Secretary of Defense was to keep just such an event from occurring. His view was that the U.S. had to maintain a strong presence in Iraq for a long time. Without that presence Iraq would see the resurgence of sectarian strife that would plague the Iraqis and our nation for decades. President Obama’s goal was to get out of Iraq and to keep his promise to end U.S. participation in the war.
Gates would also probably blame President Obama for not working hard enough to influence the Iraqi government to allow the American military to stay beyond their December 2011 pullout date. President Obama wanted a law passed by Iraq’s Parliament to protect American soldiers from prosecution in Iraq. Expecting the Iraqi Parliament to do this while not being very effective himself in getting legislation passed in the U.S. Congress must seem ironic to Gates.
The Iraqi leadership wanted U.S. soldiers to stay after their pullout date, according to Gates, but they feared public opposition to any more foreign occupation. As a result, Americans left, helping to create the situation we see today in Iraq.
Gates stated in his book that the Bush Administration chose al-Maliki as Shia Prime Minister of Iraq because he was weak. But he has become too strong and is now unwilling to cede power. He has been too parochial, favoring the Shias over the minority Sunni Muslims who have now risen up and taken over half the country. Al-Maliki also replaced Sunni military officers with Shia political allies, who have little knowledge of leading the military. These decisions have helped the Sunni uprising and the Iraqi military defeats.
Being patriotic and caring deeply as a “soldiers’ defense secretary” for those who fought, were wounded and who died in that war, Gates must be grieving the loss of cities like Mosul and Fallujah to IS. During his time at Defense, and with Gen. Patraeus as his general, they were able to get the Sunni majority to become allies against al-Qaeda and to end much of the violence in Iraq after the surge.
Two and one-half years after the U.S. military withdrawal, half of Iraq and part of Syria are under control of the IS and the Kurds are virtually independent. Iraq, with al-Maliki’s insistence on favoring his fellow Shias, has alienated the Sunnis who have risen up with a strict, violent and intolerant response, publicly executing hundreds, and driving Christians and other religious minorities out from their area of control.
As I watched Frontline’s “Losing Iraq” and read Gates’ “Duty,” I pondered whether the IS takeover could have been avoided. The answer is not easy.
Is Obama having second thoughts since the rise of IS? His decision to bomb this past week shows that he has. He has said he won’t send combat soldiers back to Iraq. His current policy approach is to force neighbors like Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia to deal with their own regional issues. The U.S. can’t be stretched too thin because it takes away options in other parts of the world, like Asia and Europe.
Additionally, Iran, already tied up with its ally, the Shia Hezbollah forces fighting against Assad in Syria, is now even more threatened by the Sunni Muslim resurgence in Iraq. That should keep them busy for a long time and diverted away from trying to create a new Shia Persian Empire in the Middle East. We may find it easier to get an agreement from Iran over its nuclear buildup. All is not bad, since Israel does not feel pressure from Hezbollah on its northern border while dealing with Hamas in Gaza.
Where will all this unrest in the Middle East lead? We will see the repercussions played out in our lifetimes. Decisions made in 2003 still haunt us today. I’m betting Gates is thankful his watch as secretary of defense is done.