Iraq, George W. Bush, and the Second Great Mulligan
The Great Mulligan. That's the extremely helpful term Charlie Pierce coined to describe how conservatives and supporters of George W. Bush's presidency describe the attacks that occurred on his watch. If you submit that the Bush presidency began on Jan. 20, 2001, you allow that the most devastating terrorist assault on America happened nine months later. But if you start the Bush clock on Sept. 12, 2001, you can portray Bush as a president who Kept America Safe. It's easy: Just say something like "unlike Obama's tenure, there was no successful attack on the homeland after 9/11" or that Bush "inherited the most tragic attack on our own soil in our nation's history."
Last week Fox News ushered in the Second Great Mulligan. Megyn Kelly showed her viewers the "chilling warning" that President Bush gave about possible withdrawal from Iraq, back in 2007, when the country had turned on the war and newly empowered congressional Democrats wanted a timeline for the bug-out. "BUSH'S PROPHETIC IRAQ WARNING," read the chyron, as the 43rd president spoke:
I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now. To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we're ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to Al Qaida. It'd mean that we'd be risking mass killings on a horrific scale. It'd mean we'd allow the terrorists to establish a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they lost in Afghanistan. It'd mean we'd be increasing the probability that American troops would have to return at some later date to confront an enemy that is even more dangerous.
Flawless victory. Bush administration veterans/defenders like Marc Thiessen (who was actually on Kelly's show that night) now say with confidence that their guy called it. "In Iraq, we are seeing what happens when the United States cuts and runs and allows evil to run rampant," wrote Thiessen. Obama could have kept a reserve force in Iraq; he could have negotiated a status of forces agreement. He didn't.
Hang on, though—why, in 2007, was the country debating whether to leave troops in Iraq? This wasn't some crisis forced on George W. Bush. It was a result of his 2002–2003 decision to invade the country and overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. In 2002 and 2003, it's hard to find the Bush administration speculating on a long-term occupation of Iraq, or that overthrowing Hussein could empower radical groups. On March 3, 2003, Bush was asked explicitly about the possibility of an invasion destabilizing the Middle East.
QUESTION: As you know, not everyone shares your optimistic vision of how this might play out. Do you ever worry, maybe in the wee, small hours, that you might be wrong and they might be right in thinking that this could lead to more terrorism, more anti-American sentiment, more instability in the Middle East?
BUSH: I think, first of all, it's hard to envision more terror on America than September the 11th, 2001. We did nothing to provoke that terrorist attack. [ed. - Saddam Hussein was not involved in the 9/11 attacks.] It came upon us because there is an enemy which hates America. They hate what we stand for. We love freedom, and we're not changing. And therefore, so long as there's a terrorist network like al Qaeda and others willing to fund them, finance them, equip them, we're at war. And so I -- you know, obviously I've thought long and hard about the use of troops. I think about it all of the time. It is my responsibility to commit the troops. I believe we'll prevail. I know we'll prevail. And out of that disarmament of Saddam will come a better world, particularly for the people who live in Iraq.
In November 2003, at a joint press conference with then-PM Tony Blair, Bush insisted that a new Iraq was being built, and that as it cohered, America could draw down troops.
One thing that is happening that you need to know that will help us make the necessary calculations for troops levels, is that there are a lot of Iraqis beginning to be trained to deal with the issues on the ground. There are Iraqis being trained for an army, there are Iraqis being trained for intelligence services, there are Iraqis being trained for additional police work, there are Iraqis being trained for asset protection, there are Iraqis being trained for border guards. There are over 130,000 Iraqis now who have been trained, who are working for their own security. And part of the answer to your question is how fast the new brigades of Iraqi Army, how effective they are. We believe that the Iraqi citizens want to be free. We know that they are willing to work for their own freedom, and the more people working for their own freedom, the more we can put that into our calculation as to troop level.
You can dig around and for more examples; what you'll find, generally, is that arguments for invading Iraq were predicated on the idea that Hussein's state could be replaced by a strong democracy that would be an ally in the Middle East. Absolutely, as Iraq failed to turn into a dry-heat version of Sweden, Bush would warn against withdrawing troops and giving the enemy a heads-up on when to start partying.
But in 2002 and 2003, the idea that America would have to commit forces to Iraq for a generation was so absurd that pollsters didn't really ask it. In 2007, Bush was admitting that America needed to stay in Iraq as long as terrorists threatened to build beachheads there. By 2008, when John McCain was running for president on the success of the troop surge, he furthered the idea that America could keep a residual force in the country, and that it wouldn't mean lots of combat against persistant terror. "We've been in South Korea, we've been in Japan for 60 years," he said. "We've been in South Korea for 50 years or so. That'd be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or wounded or killed." The goalposts had shifted far, far into the horizon.
If you start the clock then, though, yes—the Obama administration failed to keep a residual force in Iraq. The military wanted 24,000 troops, the administration settled on 10,000, and even that number failed to survive status of forces negotiations. Had they stayed, they'd have found a 2012 Iraq that was a bit more dangeous than 2012 South Korea. But they would have been there. It's just that the Bush administration that sold the Iraq war to voters 11 years ago did not suggest that America was committing to a generational military presence and pitched land battles against new terror groups. Some of the people who argued against the war worried that they might happen. To ignore them, and to credit Bush with prophetic foresight, is to give him one hell of a mulligan.