The Magazine

The Truth About Iraq

And why it matters

Jul 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 42 • By DICK CHENEY and LIZ CHENEY
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America’s invasion of Iraq also sent a clear message to others in the region that America would take action if necessary. Within a few days of our capture of Saddam, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi announced he would like to turn over his nuclear program. He feared he would suffer the same fate as Saddam. Shortly after that, A.Q. Khan, Qaddafi’s supplier of nuclear technology, was also put out of business and placed under house arrest in Pakistan.

Those who say we should not have taken action in Iraq should spend a moment contemplating what the Arab Spring might have looked like with a nuclear-armed Qaddafi in power in Tripoli.

The war to liberate Iraq was indisputably difficult. It included tragedy and challenges we did not foresee. Every war does, but these challenges do not detract from the rightness of our cause. The question is what do you do in the face of setbacks. History has proven that President Bush’s decision to surge forces into Iraq and adopt a counterinsurgency strategy under the command of Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno worked.

Success in Iraq was also secured by the skill of people like Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General Stan McChrystal. The methods McChrystal and our special operators developed in Iraq—taking down a terrorist target, exploiting the information found at the site, moving immediately to act on the leads and take down other terrorists—were honed over a number of years. In April 2004, McChrystal writes, they ran a total of 10 operations in Iraq. That August they conducted 18. By 2006, his teams had improved their methods to the point where they could average more than 300 operations per month, “against a faster, smarter enemy and with greater precision and intelligence yield.”

These types of operations are a critical tool in the war on terror. They stand in stark contrast to this administration’s actions in Benghazi, for example. Rather than move quickly to uncover critical intelligence and capture or kill those behind the attacks, the Obama team spent 18 months building a legal case before they moved to capture Ahmed Abu Khattala. He has now been read Miranda rights.

The real proof that things were in good shape in Iraq when President Obama took office is that his administration set about claiming credit for the situation. Vice President Biden memorably predicted in 2010 that Iraq “will be one of the great achievements of this administration.” President Obama repeatedly asserted, “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq.”

President Obama spent a good deal of time during his reelection campaign in 2012 claiming to have fulfilled his 2008 promise to “end” the war. His campaign speeches included lines like: “I told you I’d end the war in Iraq and I did”; and “Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq and we did”; and “We’ve succeeded in our strategy to end the war.” With the rise of ISIS in Iraq, that strategy isn’t looking so good.

White House credit-taking has predictably morphed into blame-shifting. In a move that must be uncomfortable even for a president unburdened by a strong allegiance to fact, the administration now claims President Obama was simply implementing George Bush’s policy when he withdrew all U.S. forces.

When President Obama isn’t blaming George Bush for forcing him to remove the troops, he is blaming Nuri al-Maliki for the lack of a stay-behind agreement. Maliki certainly shares the blame for the disaster in Iraq today, but the fact is our commanders on the ground asked for a stay-behind force of nearly 20,000. President Obama said no. They came back and asked for 10,000. President Obama said no. He was willing to leave no more than 3,500 troops in place, a force too small to carry out the mission. Then, just to be sure Maliki wouldn’t accept our terms, President Obama insisted any stay-behind agreement would have to be submitted to the Iraqi parliament for approval. He made sure Maliki, al Qaeda, Iran, and the rest of the world knew we weren’t serious about defending the gains we had won at such a high cost of American lives and treasure.

In spite of all we have seen, President Obama stubbornly clings to the quaint notion that wars end because he says they do. And even as tragedy and terror engulf Iraq, he insists he will follow exactly the same course of action in Afghanistan.

The rise of ISIS and the resurgence of radical Islamic terror groups across the Middle East present a grave threat to the national security of the United States. The situation is dire, and defeating this threat requires immediate, sustained action across multiple fronts.

In Iraq, we should provide military support in the form of trainers, special operations forces, an intelligence architecture, and airpower to aid the Iraqi military in its counteroffensive against ISIS. ISIS does not recognize the border between Syria and Iraq, and we can’t either. We have to strike ISIS in their sanctuaries, staging areas, command centers, and lines of communication on both sides of the border. We also need to do everything possible to defend Jordan against ISIS.

The Iraqi government is flawed in critical ways, which must be addressed once ISIS is on the ropes. We cannot allow the need for political reconciliation to prevent us from doing what is necessary now to defeat the threat to the United States. By insisting on political reconciliation as a precondition to significant U.S. support for the defeat of ISIS, the Obama administration is ensuring the threat to America will grow. Each day we dither is another day ISIS is able to solidify its gains. The longer it operates with impunity, the more effective its recruitment. ISIS is using its success on the battlefield to rally thousands of foreign fighters to join the effort in Iraq. Every day we wait means the battle that must eventually be fought will be harder and more costly.

As we work to defeat ISIS in Iraq and prevent the growth of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, we must also move globally to get back on offense in the war on terror. This means, first, recognizing and admitting the size and scope of the threat we face. Al Qaeda is not “diminished,” nor is “the tide of war receding.” We remain at war, and law enforcement mechanisms will not keep us safe.

Second, we need to reverse the dramatic decline in defense spending we’ve seen in the last six years. A nation at war cannot hope to prevail if only 4 of its 42 Army brigades are combat ready. We need to make restoration of our military and a reversal of the disastrous defense budget cuts one of our top priorities.

Third, we need to halt the drawdown of our troops in Afghanistan. The tragedy, terror, and chaos in Iraq will be repeated in Afghanistan if we abandon the fight there. Pulling out all U.S. troops without regard to conditions on the ground or the recommendations of our commanders will ensure a victory for America’s enemies.

Fourth, we need to reassure our friends and allies in the Middle East that America will not abandon them. We need to demonstrate through increased intelligence cooperation, military assistance, training, joint exercises, and economic support that we know they are on the front lines of the war on terror. We should immediately provide the Apache helicopters and other military support the government of Egypt needs to fight the al Qaeda insurgency in the Sinai.

Fifth, we should be clear that we recognize a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel and to other nations in the region, as well. We should refuse to accept any “deal” with the Iranians that allows them to continue to spin centrifuges and enrich uranium. In the cauldron of the Middle East today, accepting a false deal—as the Obama administration seems inclined to do—will only ensure Iran attains a nuclear weapon and spark a nuclear arms race across the region. The Iranians should know without a doubt that we will not allow that to happen, and that we will take military action if necessary to stop it.

America must win this war. We won’t defeat our enemies by retreating. We won’t win if we adopt a false narrative about the past, fail to learn the lessons of history, or seek security in disengagement and isolationism. We will only defeat our enemies if we are clear-eyed about the threat and have the will to do what it takes for as long as it takes—until the war is won.

Dick Cheney was vice president from 2001-09. Liz Cheney was the deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs from 2002-04 and 2005-06.

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