Tag Archives: Iraq

Leaving Iraq 2011: Or, Underrating the Utility of Force

One of the things that I’ve heard most frequently from the conservative side in the Iraq debates is that President Obama had the chance to keep American troops there, which is what most senior commanders and many diplomats wanted, but instead was in such a hurry to get out that no attempt was made to capitalize, or to use plans that were ready to go.  The President has repudiated these accusations more than once, perhaps most notably on August 9, 2014, after ordering that air strikes commence against Daesh. Specifically:

“Under the previous administration, we had turned over the country to a sovereign, democratically elected Iraqi government,” Obama said. “In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution if, for example, they were protecting themselves and ended up getting in a firefight with Iraqis, that they wouldn’t be hauled before an Iraqi judicial system.

“And the Iraqi government, based on its political considerations, in part because Iraqis were tired of a U.S. occupation, declined to provide us those assurances,” Obama said. “And on that basis, we left. We had offered to leave additional troops. So when you hear people say, do you regret, Mr. President, not leaving more troops, that presupposes that I would have overridden this sovereign government that we had turned the keys back over to and said, you know what, you’re democratic, you’re sovereign, except if I decide that it’s good for you to keep 10,000 or 15,000 or 25,000 Marines in your country, you don’t have a choice, which would have kind of run contrary to the entire argument we were making about turning over the country back to Iraqis, an argument not just made by me, but made by the previous administration.

“So let’s just be clear: The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because the Iraqis were–a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq,” said Obama.

Now, you can read about the notorious Status of Forces Agreement, in outdated form (but with links to the documents), without necessarily getting the deeper details of the situation. However, when you do, it seems readily apparent that, while it is true that the argument over legal immunity was decisive, the way it went down speaks to a much more complex–and less complimentary narrative–than I had been aware of. iraq war endsThe signals being sent by the Obama administration, and unhappy convergence of campaign promises, senior military advice, internal Iraqi politics, and Iranian influence, really did set the stage for the complete removal of an American presence that, while it might not have prevented the raise of Daesh, certainly would have improved those odds.

The key article that I’ve found (and I’ll add others if you send me links) is by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker on 28 April, 2014: “What We Left Behind.” It’s long, and detailed, and thought-provoking journalistic narrative of 2008 to 2014. How internal Iraqi alliances were brokered, particularly by the Iranians, how the Obama administration accepted that brokering, and how most people on the ground saw American presence as a steadying thing–is all laid out there.

My impression is, now that I’m a 2-hour expert on the subject (not counting the 3 years I listened to veterans discussing it), is that the President has learned one very important lesson about the utility of force–that it often doesn’t deliver what you want how you want–at the expense of another lesson–that it IS useful, at times. And a third lesson, that just because you disapprove of using sledgehammers to crack nuts, you swear off cracking nuts completely. In other words, there are other dimensions to military power than just the kinetic, smash-everything kind. I wouldn’t necessarily call military power “soft,” but “soft” military power leading up to 2011 seems to have had many benefits, simply by being there. I’ve long been a fan of the President’s refusal to get drawn into another long, drawn-out war with no clear end state, but in 2011 it is very hard to escape the conclusion that an opportunity got away.

Well, if it was an opportunity. Ultimately, it will come down to whether or not internal Iraqi politics, sandwiched between America’s apathy and Iran’s activism, could have been prevailed upon to approve a U.S. presence with legal immunity. There’s no consensus on the issue, but, and I hate to agree with Max Boot below, when Bush wanted the first agreement done, he put forth the requisite effort. The jury is out on whether the Obama administration did the same.

Daesh Dilenda Est.

Further Reading:

Continue reading Leaving Iraq 2011: Or, Underrating the Utility of Force

Weekly Reading: Historians for Britain, Academic Labor, and Why We’re Addicted to War

There were SO many great articles on my docket this past week, mostly in the “current affairs” box, for which I apologize–my write-up of Kalamazoo is about 2/3rds finished, and should be up tomorrow. Medieval news is on the way.  But here are some top articles worth thinking about:

  • First and foremost, my friend and mentor Greg Daddis’ new article in The National Interest, “America: Addicted to War, Afraid of Peace.” Greg has been a huge influence on my teaching and approach to history, and I think he knocks it out of the park here, as usual. This is a more subtle malaise than Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, and is tied directly to Bacevich’s warnings about the American people’s often unreflective worship of the American military. To my mind, it is also connected to the “revolution in military affairs” advocates, who have created, as Fred Kagan observed in Finding the Target, this interesting situation where we innovate ahistorically, in the shadow of some quasi-abstract projected future conflict, thereby, I think, subtly conditioning leaders, policy-makers, and the American people to expect war on a regular basis. There might be a book here somewhere…
  • An article by Jason Tropy, “No God in the Fight: Why a Christian Army is a Terrible Idea,” tries to dissect the attempt by Matthew Van Dyke to create some kind of “Christian Army” to combat ISIS. I say “tries” because I have read contradictory things about this endeavor, and at the moment have no basis for picking one report over another (I’ll be grateful for any recommendations on this topic). I tend to agree with his admonition, “don’t join any holy wars,” though the tinge of anti-medieval rhetoric is, as is often the case, misguided. But I’ve harped on that often enough…
  • If you’ve read anything about the historical profession in Great Britain recently, you’re probably aware of the “Historians for Britain” movement, and its counterpart “Historians for History.” The blog Historian on the Edge has a long, provocative, link-filled post on the subject titled “Why History Doesn’t Matter: Historians for Britain (or, Where does a Chaotic/Ironic view of History leave the Socially-/Politically-Committed Historian?).” The author presents an interesting analysis of the situation, along with some questionable prescriptions for the use of history in the political sphere–an insistence on history’s political value lying in “the subversion of all reifications,” which these days is a popular, if misguided, benchmark of scholarly worth. On the other hand, the author’s emphasis on contingency and by implication counter-factuals is spot-on, and mirrors my own beliefs.
  • Continuing the thread of personal beliefs about studying history, one of my favorite lectures is Fredrik Logevall’s address “The Uses of History: American Presidents and the Past,” given in January of this year. He addresses counter-factuals, but also identifies policy-makers’ and historians’ necessarily different approaches to history, and what makes studying history a fulfilling and valuable activity (starting around 13 minutes). In fact, I think I’ll rewatch it now…

  • An interesting article by Caroline Tervo called “In Defense of the South.” Basically, it’s a simple argument that there isn’t a monolithic South. It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago in a past relationship, and it’s a lesson that’s easy to forget when you teach the Civil War. A lot of the Southern prejudice against Yankees I think is bunk, but so are the silly prejudices toward the South popular among “Yankees.” Basically, these stereotypes come from a lack of empathy. To understand, you have to actively listen and learn.
  • Speaking of listening, maybe men should pipe down more. A much-commented on article, “Why women talk less,” addresses issues surrounding hearing women’s voices in academia. It’s an interesting read, and I think pretty accurate, though I have mixed feelings about the recent “all-male panels” mockery, which ambivalence I’ll sort out at a later date. At the end of the day, I love this great blog post’s strictures how to treat women [academics], which to my mind is how decent folk should act as a matter of course. But…we know that this often isn’t the case, probably because men are worried about women colleagues being distractingly sexy.
  • Brian Mahoney’s article “Trade defeat is a huge defeat for labor,” discussing how the AFL-CIO mobilized the political muscle to stop the big trade legislation last week. Given the labor issues that have been rocking the academic world, this discussion of labor organizations I found timely. Anyway, I thought it was interesting.
  • Speaking of academia, higher education, and labor, last week there were two good follow-ups to that professors-live-in-fear piece. One is by Koritha Mitchell, “I’m a professor. My colleagues who let students dictate what they teach are cowards.” The other is by Noah Berlatsky, “Professors do live in fear–but not of liberal students.”
  • Not exactly a follow up is Hunter Rawlings’ “College is not a commodity. Stop treating it like one.” I do wonder sometimes if there isn’t a contradiction between pushing back against the “commodification” of college and the attacks on tenure but simultaneously treating the situation as a labor issue, since much of the labor force doesn’t have the kind of job security that tenure provides. Unless that’s an incorrect assumption? Someone help me out here.
  • I also see a bit of a contradiction in this short piece by David Schraub, “Academic Freedom versus Academic Legitimacy,” which was widely picked up a couple weeks ago for some reason, and protests on Left and Right over various instances of intellectual censorship and discrimination. The issue is one of precedent and power–who decides what is and isn’t legitimate, and under what circumstances? One side’s illegitimacy is often the other side’s academic freedom violation. On the other hand, there ARE positions that are illegitimate–that the Nazis were misunderstood chaps, for example. So, I think most people, myself included, adopt a very “medieval” position–contradictory, and in search of some guiding principle that won’t lead us astray. Anyway, I’ll keep thinking about this.

Tomorrow I should have my thoughts about Kalamazoo up, so stay tuned.

The Past Week’s Reading, Feb 22

In no particular order, here are some stories and articles that caught my eye this past week.


Robin Fleming on post-Roman Britain, “The best thing the Romans did for Britain was leave, historian claims.”

Michel Baran, “The Mongol Empire in World History: The State of Research.”


More “crusades controversy” fall out, Ross Douthat, “In Defense of Islam.”

Another, “Obama Crusade remarks spark firestorm of debate.” 

David Perry, “The Jews and the Crusades (New York Times): We are not perfect.”

The much-discussed article by Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.”

A counterpoint to the above, “America’s Most Prominent Muslim Says the Atlantic is Doing PR for ISIS.”

And another counterpoint, “Why ISIS Isn’t Medieval.”


Instability in the Iraqi government. “Sunnis may exit Iraq parliament after sheik’s slaying.”

French ultra-nationalist party gaining ground, “The National Front’s Post-Charlie Hebdo Moment.”

Veterans and civilians, Matt Richtel, “Please Don’t Thank Me For My Service.”

Long article on General Khalifa Haftar, “Liyba’s New Strongman. The Unravelling.”

Paul Staniland, “Every Insurgency is Different.”


Minsk 2 and its problems, “The woeful strategic and military aftermath of the Minsk 2 agreement between Ukraine and Russia.”


Joel Achenbach, “Why Do So Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”

Random news you can use: Iraqi WMDs, Caravaggio, American Digger, Edward II…

I haven’t done a “random news” post in a while, so here’s a round up some items that have caught my eye in the last few days.  Some are links originally posted by friends on Facebook, others are more random.

First–I grew up reading H. E. Marshall’s An Island Story and An Empire Story, and was pleasantly surprised to run across this version she did of Guy of Warwick (I gave a paper on aspects of the story over the weekend, so I have the tale very much on the brain).  Great fun, and worth reading.  See the TEAMS edition of the Stanzaic Guy of Warwick for more information on the tale itself and a good edition of the text by a leading scholar on the subject.

In more serious vein, apparently the chap responsible for concocting the story about WMDs in Iraq is coming out and “telling all.”  Or just did, the other night, on national British TV.  Sort-of boggles the mind, really, but on the other hand I guess this kind of…crap…has been going on for ages.  Not much else to say, really.

Random historical news: Renaissance painter Caravaggio was murdered by the Knights of St. John, according to a new study by Professor Vincenzo Pacelli of the University of Naples.  Not everyone is buying the theory, but it’s pretty intriguing, and rests on some suggestive evidence.  A couple weeks ago, Michael White posted a rumination the origins of Parliament in The Guardian.  Rather a nifty summary, and I appreciated especially the way he emphasized how easily English political institutions could have developed differently.  Oh, and did you know that Handel wrote an opera on Richard the Lionheart?  Performed in 1727; apparently it has to be seen to be believed, and it WAS seen–front and center in the London Handel Festival. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to get the DVD any time soon…

Continue reading Random news you can use: Iraqi WMDs, Caravaggio, American Digger, Edward II…

Citino’s blog, “Full-Metal Jousting Call”, the crusader states, and the Small Wars Journal

A short post for a busy day…

I should have known this before, I suppose, but I just saw yesterday that Robert Citino, the great scholar of the Wehrmacht, has a blog, to which I would earnestly direct your attention. He writes with the same energy that he has at conferences.  Two notices from Steve Muhlberger’s blog: one on a real “casting call” for “full metal jousting.” No joke.  And a second is a call for critiques of Historian on the Edge’s post “The Unbearable Weight of Being a Historian.”  Worth reading, and I might do a post on this myself in the near future.

Next, a link from Medievalists.net to an old article about medical practices in the crusader states.

And finally, two stories from the Small Wars Journal: one about recent Army worries regarding “toxic leadership” (read their definition of what a toxic leader is–not just confined to the Army, imho), and one by Mark Kukis on why a complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be the best thing for all concerned.

Ok, back to work…

Civil War news from “Disunion,” and one counter-insurgency article

There have been lots of great posts on The New York Times‘ “Disunion” Civil War blog. Here are a few of them, as I’ve remembered to keep them open in my browser!  In “The Foot Comes Down,” Ted Widmer discusses Lincoln’s speeches in New Jersey (a clear reason for me to post it).  And Steven Hahn, a brilliant scholar and Rochester alum, discusses “What Lincoln meant to the slaves.” Most recently, Susan Schulten looks at the myths and realities of western expansion and Kansas in “How the West was Won.”

A couple of other related stories include an interesting article by Scott Casper called “Rebranding Mount Vernon,” on the estate’s former slaves and their role in memorializing Washington’s home.   Aaaaand, just to bring us up to the current world, a notice about the reenactment of Jefferson Davis’ swearing-in. For reals. I’ll hold my tongue for now. Ok, I won’t…sometimes I think that the problem lies in that while the federal government may not have had the “legal” power to end slavery, the South wasn’t about to get rid of it–which tends to be the argument I’ve heard advanced by Southern apologists as to why slavery wasn’t really important even on moral grounds, as left to itself the Old South was slowly deciding to do away with the institution. Hogwash. In fact, one of the few sweeping federal powers granted in the Southern constitution (if memory serves) was  the government’s right and duty to enforce slavery, which no state could legally abolish. Which gets us right back to where we started.

I apologize for all the articles being from the NYT, which someone said recently has had far more to say about the Middle East than Wisconsin, but hey, the articles here are quality.  One takes one’s news as one can.

On a brief Afghanistan-related note, Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl (the noted Counter-Insurgency public advocate) argued in a recent column that yes, in fact, see the “surge” in Afghanistan is working just like it did in Iraq (ok, they’re not that blunt, but that’s essentially the message). I have my doubts about the “Iraq Surge” narrative, fostered by military folks on the other side of the debate with whom I’m acquainted, but the article’s worth the read.

Ok, that will have to do for today…I’ve already been working on chapter 4 for a few hours, and have to head out for some errands and then work on campus later.  Have a good day!

Grant-writing, and the Christian Church in Iraq

Ok, so these two topics don’t really go together, at least on the surface…But these links have been open in my browser for a while, and I’d like to clear them off before going home tomorrow (at least, that’s what the airport says…I’m not sure about that.  Lot of white stuff swirling around out there!).

In addition to whatever random information or “vacation” updates that I post in the next two weeks, be on the lookout for a couple longer pieces I’ve been putting off till I had a chance to write them.  One deals with two recent popular crusades articles, one on the state of military history as a field, and the last is an historian’s assessment of the film A Knight’s Tale (the inspiration for which came while showing it, once again, for another class last week).  I’d been toying with creating a “film reviews” page for some time, but, as I really wanted such reviews to be substantial, I hadn’t yet done anything with the idea.  However, as I do have an ever-growing list of notes to A Knight’s Tale, I figure it’s about time to write them up formally.  So it begins…


Anyhow…my friend Kira posted this link from the Chronicle the other day, and in the season of grant-writing (which is not yet over) it bears repeated reading.  So much so that I’ve saved the web page to my computer.  Really.  One commenter said it was “obnoxious,” but that person needs to lighten up.  “How to Fail in Grant Writing” is a great article, full of information and check-points for us poor writers!

The second article is a rather somber one from The New York Times on December 12, on how Iraqi Christians are fleeing targeted violence in Iraq.  The picture painted of post-occupation Iraq is not a very rosy one, to say the least.  On the historical side, I think the various denominations of Iraqi Christians are worth noting, as I would venture to say that many folks weren’t even aware that there were Christian churches in Iraq.  Reminds me for some reason of the relationship of the Levantine Christian churches with the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages–the eastern churches “did things a bit differently,” so to speak, and, I’ve got the impression, were occasionally regarded as oddities even by the Frankish  soldiers and clerics who traveled to the east.    Anyway, it’s a dimension of the past and present Middle Eastern conditions that deserves more attention.