That argument still resonates strongly as the U.S. and its allies, including Australia, decide on the most effective humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide in northern Iraq. Some victories, especially in dangerous and strategically important regions, need to be defended for years or decades. This is why, for example, the U.S. still has 28,000 troops in South Korea 60 years after the Korean War.
Four years ago, as Barack Obama was drawing down U.S. forces from Iraq, Dr. Kissinger warned against leaving a vacuum in the region. Iraq was central to the West’s conflict with revolutionary jihad, he wrote. That risk was heightened, he noted, by the tensions between the Shiite and Sunni groups and the tenuous position of Iraq’s Kurdish provinces, resting uneasily between Turkey and Iran.
George W. Bush’s administration made bad blunders in Iraq, including justifying its 2003 invasion on the grounds of weapons of mass destruction, disbanding the Iraqi Army in its haste to expunge all traces of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime and claiming victory prematurely.
Unfortunately, however, Obama’s error of judgment has had longer term, disastrous consequences. The president helped create the conditions for the current horror when he ignored the advice of the U.S. Army’s senior commander in Iraq, Gen. Lloyd Austin, in 2011. Gen. Austin advised Obama to leave 14,000 to 18,000 troops on the ground in Iraq to defend hard-won gains and provide stability. In brushing such professional advice aside, Obama allowed the defeated terrorists to regroup.
Even his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who reportedly favored leaving a substantial residual force, is scathing about aspects of the President’s strategic policies, especially his amateurish “don’t do stupid stuff” motto. As she said this week: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
Prime Minister Tony Abbott is right in offering Australian support, including assigning troops if necessary, to help the Yazidi community besieged by Islamic State jihadists in northern Iraq. And the West, including Australia, should not ignore the monstrous persecution, including the beheading of children, being wrought against Christians in Mosul. But beyond providing humanitarian assistance and building good relations with moderate Islamic leaders, the West cannot resolve the deep splits between extremist Islamists currently unfolding in Iraq and Syria.
In a century or more, however, when the history of these conflicts is written and the role of the West analyzed, it is reasonable to believe historians will conclude that much bloodshed could have been avoided if Obama had not retreated in haste while lauding a U.S. “victory.” The same errors must be avoided in Afghanistan.