- - Tuesday, May 3, 2016

”I have never been more proud of a president than when Bush announced the Iraq surge on Jan. 10, 2007.” That’s the honest sentiment of an Iraq war veteran recently returned from that trying battlefield. I served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and witnessed some of the worst moments of the war, including the bombing of the Samarra golden mosque — an event that unleashed sectarian violence across the country.

But I left Iraq with a gnawing sense that with a new strategy, the right leadership and more troops, the war could still be won. I had seen the seeds of success during my time in Iraq, and knew that America could succeed if we changed course and showed resolve. George W. Bush did both in 2007 — and a year later, when I returned to Iraq twice to assess conditions on the ground, the war had been “fundamentally transformed.” By the time Mr. Bush left office, al Qaeda in Iraq was defeated and the country was stable.

The Iraq surge was so successful that by February 2010, Vice President Joe Biden — an ardent opponent of the surge and critic of the Iraq War — said, “I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this [Obama] administration.” President Obama was solely focused on “ending the war” with an assumption that the aggressive gains of the Bush administration would remain intact. He unilaterally declared the war over — except the war was not over for us.

Instead, Mr. Obama’s politically expedient rush for the exits in Iraq created a power vacuum on the ground that both political opponents (namely Iran) and military opponents (the failed remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq) used to stage a comeback. America, led by Mr. Obama, Mr. Biden and Hillary Clinton, abandoned long-term relationship-building and stability (not nation-building) in Iraq in exchange for short-term political popularity at home, creating chaos that even a “JV team” could exploit. The failure to enforce a “red line” in Syria was simply icing on the chaos cake.

Fast-forward to Iraq and Syria today. The Islamic State controls massive territory across Iraq and Syria, maintaining a caliphate from which they export Islamist terrorism and inspire foreign recruits. Thousands of radicalized Muslims from the West — America and Europe, specifically — have flocked to the battlefield, many returning to the West with the training and motivation to attack us in our backyard. The cycle feeds itself — violence leads to refugees, refugees contain Islamists, Islamists mount attacks in the West — all of which elicit pro-forma, shallow and temporary responses from feeble Western leaders. Rinse and repeat.

Instead of acknowledging this short-term and long-term threat — and addressing it head-on — the Obama administration has denied it, delayed action and obsessively done everything they can to not be the Bush administration. Mr. Obama’s anti-Iraq war blinders — combined with his post-modern, blame-America-first worldview — have led him to declare the Islamic State “un-Islamic,” preemptively declare “no boots on the ground,” and drag his feet in confronting the most dangerous threat the West and our allies have seen since Soviet communism met the dustbin of history.

Yet even in spite of ideological reluctance, events on the ground have compelled Mr. Obama to slowly and sheepishly commit more troops to the fight against the Islamic State. He has also sent our leaders back there (Mr. Biden this week visited Iraq for the first time in five years), in a rush to rebuild fractured relationship. Last week, Mr. Obama committed another 471 (don’t say 500) special operators to Iraq and Syria. Over the course of two years, drip by drip, the president has slowly added more troops to the fight — but never at the level or pace military leaders have requested. Mr. Obama says the fight against the Islamic State is his “top priority,” but his actions tell a different story.

Mr. Obama’s efforts in Iraq today are the anti-Iraq surge. Whereas Mr. Bush in 2007 learned from his mistakes, Mr. Obama remains stubbornly committed to his failing approach. Whereas Mr. Bush listened to military leaders, Mr. Obama’s favors inexperienced ideologues. Whereas Mr. Bush doubled-down to win in Iraq, Mr. Obama plays to run out the clock — fueling a foolish narrative that the Islamic State will “collapse under its own weight.” Whereas Mr. Bush ultimately did not care if his wartime decisions were politically popular, Mr. Obama preys on the anxieties of a “war-weary” American public.

Recent gains have been made against the Islamic State, with some of its terrain recaptured and its flow of foreign fighters slowing dramatically. There are signs of low morale and high desertion rates among its fighters. These are all good things. But as long as their black flag flies over Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, the caliphate will continue to export violence across the region (i.e., Libya) and inspire violence in the West.

In 2007, Mr. Bush correctly stated the stakes of the Iraq war, saying, “Failure in Iraq increases the probability that at some later date, American troops would have to return to Iraq to confront an enemy more dangerous and more entrenched.” His words were sadly prophetic. Those of us who have seen this enemy understand this tough, and unpopular, reality. The next president must courageously internalize this truth — and unleash America to win the wars we fight against enemies that threaten our freedom and security.

Pete Hegseth, an Iraq war veteran, is the author of “In the Arena” (Threshold Editions, 2016).

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