September 15, 2014 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Middle East, Iraq

Obama's ISIS strategy: Why Bush's 2007 warning on Iraq matters

Replaying the video of President Bush's 2007 warning against a premature withdrawal U.S. troops from Iraq is all the rage. In the last 24 hours, millions of Americans have “gone to the tape." 

But, unlike a referee’s decision in an NFL game, President Obama’s blown call on this question can't be reversed. There are no do-overs in war.  

Still, Mr. Bush’s comments are more than a touchstone of thoughts about what might have been. They are worth reflecting upon, for they remind us of what's important in crafting a war-winning strategy. 

Mr. Bush’s points are based on much long, hard thinking by him and his staff.  That type of effort, apparently missing in this White House (given the spate of contradictory threat assessments regarding ISIS in just the last week), needs to be made once again as America contemplates the next campaign in this long war.

Bush's declaration is a reminder that perfection isn't the measure of what makes a good commander-in-chief. Everybody makes misjudgments and mistakes in war. 

George Washington lost many battles before winning the war at Yorktown. FDR flinched at terrible setbacks from Pearl Harbor, Tarawa and the Kasserine Pass on through the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Market Garden. Truman had his Task Force Smith. 

Setbacks happen.

Strong war leaders look forward, not backward. They focus on the mission ahead. Bush wasn't worried about plummeting popularity, Code Pink, angry democrats or an upset base.  He was looking ahead and prepared to do the tough tasks that had to be done--even though they were hard and an unpopular--because they were what was needed to get the job done.

Since the disaster in Benghazi, Mr. Obama's instincts have been exactly the opposite. The bold leader who engineered the take-down of Qaddafi has become doggedly risk averse. His preferred course action veers toward the option that requires the least commitment and will produce the least criticism.

Mr. Bush also recognized a key fact of war: the enemy gets a vote. Consequently, he realized that even the most successful surge would produce a fragile peace.  Sectarian conflict could erupt at any time. Al Qaeda or its affiliates might make a comeback.  Iran could not be trusted.

So, he rightly reasoned, there needed to be an insurance policy against any of these contingencies. U.S. troops, even if they were fighting no one, provided a hedge against future sectarian struggles, resurgent terrorist campaigns or outside invasion.  

Yet Mr. Obama let Iraq's safety net slip away. Worse, there was no "plan B" addressing what to do if chaos returned to Iraq. 

Our president treats national security as a series of discreet tasks to be accomplished, like homework.  All too often, he appear to forgot the lessons of that homework once it’s handed in. Foreign policy and national security are not problems to solve, but a constant competition of action and counteraction.

Finally, Mr. Bush's comments demonstrated how he had matured as a strategic leader.  The Bush of 9/11 was not the Bush of 2008.  His administration made major misjudgments in the run-up to and the aftermath of the Iraq. But, Bush changed and grew as a strategic leader. As the war got worse, he became more self-confident and proactive.

In contrast, Mr. Obama entered the Oval Office with a predictable, incremental and minimalist approach to force and diplomacy. He hasn't changed. 

He has not evolved as a strategic leader. Indeed, his "strategy" speech on dealing with ISIS can pretty much be summed-up as: "We are going to keep doing pretty much what we’ve been doing the last four years." That makes no sense. The global terrorism threat has rebounded since 2010. Yet Mr. Obama remains mired in the same, demonstrably inadequate mindset.

It is not important to have policymakers debate who was right, who was wrong, how we got here, and who’s at fault. Leave that discussion to the historians. 

It’s far more important for policymakers to concentrate on the here-and-now and the future.  They need to understand the world as it is—then figure out what needs to be done and put things right. A sense of history is helpful; replaying history in your head over and over again--not so much.

Instead of spending so much energy and effort explaining why the Obama way of war is so much different and smarter than the Bush way of war, the president should invest his energies in winning the war to be won.   

 - James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Originally appeared in Fox News