The Magazine

The Great Bugout

Obama’s retreat from the Middle East

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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During his last four months in office, President Bush also authorized a major review of his Afghanistan strategy. It planned to double the size of the Afghan National Army, restructure the International Security Assistance Force​—​the NATO-centered coalition there​—​and devote more intelligence assets to tracking down al Qaeda and Taliban leaders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. It had asked the senior military commander, U.S. Army general David -McKiernan, to prepare a request for a troop “surge” of his own, but chose to leave such a decision to the next president. The administration recognized that its unexpectedly rapid successes of late 2001 and 2002 were an incomplete victory; al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership had been driven from power, but Afghanistan​—​particularly in the Pashtun stronghold of Kandahar​—​remained a chaotic place, corruptly and weakly “governed” from Kabul. Indeed, the regime of President Hamid Karzai was beginning to look problematic.

Despite the shock of the 9/11 attacks and the declaration of a “global war on terror,” the Bush administration did not entirely lose its sense of traditional Middle East power politics. This was an administration in which the president’s decision-making circle was small and practical-minded, and devoted to inherited strategic tradition. Almost by habit, they regarded Afghanistan as an economy-of-force mission. Thus, the Iraq mission and “surge” took precedence over Afghanistan; who ruled in Baghdad was inherently more important than who ruled in Kandahar​—​Islamabad was more important than Kandahar, too.

And from the first, President Bush viewed the terror war within its regional context. Speaking to Congress on September 20, 2001, he argued that the effort “begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there.” To be sure, the Bush administration made huge efforts to target Osama bin Laden, but it also attacked many other elements of the al Qaeda network, notably in the Philippines and Indonesia. Indeed, both those “antiterrorism” campaigns were broadly crafted to rebuild damaged strategic partnerships and reform militaries prone to excesses. The results are now visible both in the form of deepened democracies and​—​in two countries also feeling the pressures of Chinese encroachments​—​the desire for deeper ties to the United States.

Assessing Bush’s Middle East strategy in light of the overall regional balance of power also casts Iran questions in a different light. While there was no moderation of the revolutionary bent of the Islamic Republic or halt to its drive to acquire nuclear weapons, the strong U.S. positions in Iraq and Afghanistan did much to contain Iranian mischief-making and posed a credible threat to Iran’s nuclear facilities; in Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki’s bold “Knight’s Charge” operation in early 2008 defeated a gaggle of Iran-friendly Shia militias in the southern city of Basra, militias including Moktada al-Sadr’s Jaish al Mahdi. At the time​—​meaning in the context of the perceived successes of the U.S. “surge”​—​it appeared that Maliki might be an independent leader with a bit of a nationalist streak willing to take on Iranian proxies.

Bush also courted traditional regional-power partners in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The administration’s efforts to rebuild the Turkish alliance have been little studied, but from the low point of 2003, when Ankara rejected requests for access to support the Iraq invasion, there was a slow, difficult, but steady improvement in cooperation with the avowedly Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Much of the success is measured in crises avoided​—​the de facto “liberation” of Iraqi Kurdistan occasioned by the overthrow of Saddam Hussein might easily have poisoned U.S.-Turkey relations, but by the end of the second Bush term the U.S. and Turkish militaries were cooperating in​—​and the Iraqi Kurds tolerating​—​an aggressive campaign to suppress the attacks of the Kurdistan Workers’ party, a radical group better known as the PKK. It had long been operating on the Turkey-Iraq border and conducting terrorist raids in Turkey.

The Bush administration also built a deeper partnership with Israel, despite disagreements over provocative issues such as settlements on the West Bank and Israeli concerns over the Iraq war. For the most part, Bush focused on areas of strategic agreement and avoided the briar patch of trying to broker a comprehensive deal between Israel and the Palestinians. Bush made two trips to Israel in 2008 alone, where he was thanked by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for having “stood like nobody else on our side in sunny mornings and stormy weather.”

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