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Iraq is Obama's problem now. Can he handle it?

Ruminations, January 5, 2014

Iraq is back in the news. Violence is escalating with body counts reaching levels not seen in years and al Qaeda stronger than ever and taking over cities. What’s President Obama doing?

“Obama,” said a friend recently, “was right on Iraq.” It is an interesting statement. Did he mean that:
• Obama was right when he said (in 2002) that a war against Iraq would be “dumb?”
• Obama was right when he said (in 2011): “I think history will judge the original decision to go into Iraq.”
• Obama was right when he pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq?
• Obama was right when he left Iraq without a status of forces agreement?
• Obama was right when he sent arms to Iraq to fight al Qaeda?

It’s hard to say. To begin, we need to understand Obama’s perspective on his mandate. In 2013, Obama made the statement that “I was elected to end wars, not start them.” Actually, while as a general rule most Americans are opposed to wars, they really want a president who will win wars – not necessarily end them. On December 8, 1941, President Roosevelt could have ended the war in the Pacific by capitulating to Japan’s demands. On April 12, 1861, President Lincoln could have avoided the bloodshed of the Civil War by declaring that the South had the right to secede and to continue slavery. On June 25, 1950 President Truman could have avoided the Korean War by letting the North Korean communists take the whole Korean peninsula.

History judges Roosevelt, Lincoln and Truman as decisive leaders whose object was to win (or at least, not lose) wars, not merely to end them. When Obama made his “end wars” statement was that a bone for the pacifist wing of the Democratic Party? Was Obama trying to backtrack from his “redline” gaff to Syria? Or worse yet, is it something he truly believes? We’ll come back to this, but first let’s look at the five bullets: why Obama, in the eyes of some, was right about Iraq.

A war against Iraq would be “dumb.” This argument is irrelevant. There are points that can be made on both sides and even if we stipulate that it was a dumb war, to be right over an event in which you had no control is irrelevant. Furthermore, no politician likes to be called wrong so in retrospect he or she will marshal supportive facts, ignoring others.

History will judge the original decision to go into Iraq. (To put this statement in perspective, Obama said it when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was seated next to him – so maybe it was more of a political nicety.) History always judges and often historians disagree. And, as new facts are uncovered, judgments change. So, this may be true but it also is Irrelevant.

Obama pulled U.S. troops out of Iraq. In 2011, the last U.S. troops left Iraq. This was part of an Obama campaign promise, although other presidents have completely reversed direction on a campaign promise when confronted by reality (e.g., Woodrow Wilson’s reelection slogan, “he kept us out of war” implying that he would continue to do so). By 2011, the annual number of Iraqi deaths had fallen to less than 4,000 from a high of over 29,000 (Iraq Body Count Project). It seemed that the Iraq security forces could handle that level of hostility but the trend in recent days shows otherwise: The UN reports that in 2013 8,868 civilians and security force members had been killed, more than any year since 2008.

However, the presence of the U.S. troops had probably influenced that decline and their withdrawal may have had an adverse effect. In addition, once troops have been withdrawn, finding the political capital to re-insert troops is a daunting – if not impossible – political task.

So, while we can say that on paper the U.S. withdrawal of forces looked reasonable, in actuality it may not have been.

The U.S. left Iraq without a status of forces agreement (SOFA). As a political legacy, this is left to the Obama Administration although President George W. Bush had not succeeded in negotiating a new agreement either (the old agreement signed by Bush expired on December 31, 2011). The crux of the problem was Iraqi sovereignty: how much U.S. troops' freedom to act interfered with the rights of the sovereign country of Iraq.

Obama had three years to negotiate a new SOFA and designated that task to Vice President Joe Biden. The new SOFA would have left behind a small stabilization force and provided Iraq with assistance and guidance. The U.S. failed to negotiate a new SOFA and some have said that this failure is one of Obama’s greatest foreign policy blunders.

But let’s put it in perspective. Obama may have failed to succeed, but was success really possible? In American eyes, a new SOFA was desirable but was it in Iraqi eyes? Maybe failure was the only option.

Obama sent arms to Iraq to fight al Qaeda. In retrospect, maybe the U.S. and Iraq now wish they had a SOFA. Maliki met with Obama six weeks ago to ask for more help. What he got was 75 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles along with C.I.A. targeting assistance. Some 58 reconnaissance drones are to follow, along with F-16 fighter jets and Apache helicopter gunships – and Maliki is requesting more.

Obama is between Iraq and a hard place – Congress. Congress is increasingly skeptical of Maliki and wants Obama to dictate terms to him (forgetting that you can only dictate terms to a leader when you have a colony or are an occupying power). Senators Carl Levin (D, MN), Robert Menendez (D, NJ), James Inhofe (R, OK), Bob Corker (R, TN.), John McCain (R, AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R, SC) wrote “Maliki's mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence. We must see more evidence from Prime Minister Maliki that the U.S. security assistance and arms sales are part of a comprehensive Iraqi strategy that addresses the political sources of the current violence and seeks to bring lasting peace to the country.”

Obama knows all about Maliki. Bush received similar advice and also chose not to intervene in Iraqi politics.

It seems that the senators are offering Obama a choice: take the time to negotiate a strategy and review with the government of Iraq or to kill terrorists now. (This past week, al Qaeda-linked terrorists have occupied Fallujah and are threatening Ramadi, and today have set off bombs in Baghdad that killed 19.)

Was Obama right on Iraq? History will be the judge although it is not likely to be a feather in his cap. In fact, Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the left-of-center Brookings Institution, had this to say of Obama’s Iraqi policy in The Hill: “Since the Obama administration has been in office, the Middle East has gotten worse, not better -- and Iraq is just the salient example of that.”

Ignoring history, whether Obama was right about Iraq or not is irrelevant. He is not someone who is a pacifist and opposed to wars (his “end wars” statement came after being called on his “redline” gaff about Syria and he needed some gambit to walk back his seeming commitment to the use of military force). The point on Iraq is, will he be right from here on out? We hope so and sending weapons seems to be a step in the right direction.

Quote without comment
Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, in an interview with Der Spiegel, January 2, 2013: “France is facing the same problems as other countries which need to get their budgets in order and to make structural reforms. Many states have raised taxes and cut investments first. This is the easiest way, but both approaches weaken growth. A more promising avenue is to bring current government spending down and introduce structural reforms in the labor market.”

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