The Hot Potato in the Iraq Oven

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This past week, Jeb Bush drew fire from Democrats and even some Republicans for pinning the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) on the Obama administration's withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011. Supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the withdrawal, countered that ISIS was George W. Bush's fault because he invaded Iraq in the first place, destabilizing the country and permitting extremism to take hold. John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton's campaign chairman, tweeted: "Chutzpah: Jeb blaming Obama for W's failure in Iraq. Must have forgotten it was Bush-Cheney who blew it there. Now he wants a do over? Plz."

There's no doubt that the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq on the basis of inaccurate intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction — the same intelligence that led Hillary Rodham Clinton to vote in favor of force in October 2002. The Bush administration can also be faulted for early mistakes in the postwar occupation. By the time Mr. Bush left office, however, American and Iraqi forces had suppressed the extremist groups, and Iraq had a fragile but functioning democracy, which could have become a role model for other Muslim countries.

In the early days of the Obama administration, when Iraq still seemed to be heading in the right direction, the administration leadership was quick to claim credit for Iraq's political progress. Iraq "could be one of the great achievements of this administration," Vice President Joe Biden asserted in February 2010. "You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government."

When ISIS emerged in 2014, the administration abandoned its paternity claims. The officials who had set Iraq policy for the past five years suddenly announced that they were not responsible because their predecessors had made mistakes that put America there in the first place. It was as if Franklin Roosevelt had responded to Pearl Harbor by throwing up his hands and blaming the cataclysm on Woodrow Wilson's mishandling of the Versailles Treaty.

Other critics contend that Jeb Bush's allegations reflect a misreading of recent history. The Daily Beast's Michael Daly, for instance, asserted that George W. Bush set the United States on course for military withdrawal when he signed the Status of Forces Agreement in 2008.

In actuality, most American officials in both the Bush and Obama administrations expected that the SOFA would be extended before its expiration to permit American troops to remain after 2011. "I'll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA," Mr. Biden said at one point. Not until fall 2011, with military planners needing a final answer on American troop dispositions, did the White House announce withdrawal of all American troops.

The normally sober McClatchy Washington Bureau also derided Jeb Bush's historical analysis, asserting that candidate Bush had "provided a distorted version of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq." According to McClatchy, Mr. Obama was compelled to withdraw U.S. forces because "the Iraqi government strongly opposed the continued presence of U.S. forces," and "the Iraqi government refused to exempt American troops from Iraqi law."

Not true. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and most other Iraqi leaders wanted the American troops to stay. It was Mr. Obama who forced the issue by insisting that Iraq's Parliament grant immunity to American troops, something that Mr. Obama knew was neither necessary nor possible. He did so merely to have an excuse to pull out. The argument that parliamentary legalities forced Mr. Obama's hand received its death blow in June 2014 when Mr. Obama sent American troops back to Iraq without Parliamentary consent.

Entire chapters of the Iraq debacle have been omitted by those seeking to exonerate Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton. Following the contested parliamentary elections of 2010, the Obama administration could have ousted Mr. Maliki, as recommended by several senior U.S. officials who believed Mr. Maliki to be hopelessly sectarian. The White House chose to stick with Mr. Maliki. As White House spokesman Josh Earnest eventually acknowledged, Mr. Maliki's ensuing persecution of Sunnis and purging of Sunnis from the security forces were vital to the rise of ISIS.

In 2011, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama believed that "civilian power" would provide an adequate substitute for the American military presence in Iraq. Inveterately suspicious of the military, both were eager to show that diplomats and aid workers could take the place of soldiers. The administration planned to replace the U.S. military footprint with a civilian footprint of 16,000 federal employees and contractors.

The civilianization of America's presence in Iraq proved catastrophic. Once the last U.S. military troops left, the movements of American civilians were dependent upon the whims of the Iraqi government, which chose to confine the Americans to their bases. CIA counterterrorism operations ground to a halt. The Iraqi government ignored American objections that once would have stopped them cold, on subjects like the detention of Sunni politicians and the shipment of Iranian weapons through Iraqi airspace.

Among the most surprising critics of Jeb Bush's Iraq speech was a fellow Republican candidate, Chris Christie. The New Jersey governor faulted Mr. Bush for attempting to "relitigate" Iraq. "Common sense will tell you this is not a fight we want to have," said Mr. Christie. "It's not a winning fight for us."

On the contrary, Republicans should re-litigate Iraq's recent past, because it's Hillary Clinton's past. Iraq is a winning fight for Republicans, and one that can yield immense benefits. Republican candidates will inevitably seek to tie Hillary to the least popular aspects of the Obama presidency, especially those related to foreign policy given her four years as secretary of state. Fifty-five percent of Americans disapprove of Mr. Obama's handling of foreign policy, while only 39 percent approve, and Americans consider ISIS the top foreign threat to the United States.

Democrats will, of course, continue talking about Iraq in the context of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But they are not running for president — Hillary is. If Republican candidates get the Iraq narrative right, they should have no trouble making Iraq a winning issue.

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