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Obama’s Iraq

Mosul has fallen, and al Qaeda is on the march towards Baghdad

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By MAX BOOT
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So why aren’t U.S. troops still there? Obama’s supporters blame Maliki and other Iraqi politicians for not agreeing to give U.S. troops legal immunity from prosecution. They also blame George W. Bush for negotiating a previous Status of Forces Agreement in 2008 that expired at the end of 2011, even though there was a widespread expectation in both Iraq and the United States that a renewal would occur when the time came. But the truth is, as New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon and retired Marine general Bernard Trainor make clear in their definitive book, The Endgame, Obama did not try very hard to achieve a Status of Forces Agreement. He waited to start the negotiations until the middle of 2011 even though the last round of talks in 2008 took a year; he leaked word that, even if an agreement were reached, the United States would send only a tiny force of fewer than 5,000 soldiers that was hardly worth the trouble; he insisted that the Iraqi parliament would have to approve the accord even though Iraqi leaders told their American counterparts this was unlikely and unnecessary; he refused to get directly involved in the negotiations; and then he pulled the plug on the talks when they hit their first major obstacle. Obama’s heart just wasn’t in it. He had won the presidency largely because of his opposition to the Iraq war, and he saw no good reason to prolong America’s troop presence.

Obama tried hard to sell the troop pullout as a victory. On December 14, 2011, at Fort Bragg, he said: “Everything that American troops have done in Iraq—all the fighting and all the dying, the bleeding and the building, and the training and the partnering—all of it has led to this moment of success. Now, Iraq is not a perfect place. It has many challenges ahead. But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

Sovereign, stable, and self-reliant? Not quite. More like deeply divided, violent, dysfunctional, and chaotic. Iraq does have an elected government but one that roughly half of the population—Sunnis and Kurds—feels doesn’t represent them.

In hindsight, the pullout from Iraq looks increasingly like the pullout from Vietnam a generation before. “We want a decent interval,” Henry Kissinger told Chinese leaders, implying that Washington would be okay with the conquest of South Vietnam by North Vietnam as long as it didn’t occur immediately after American troops left. A “decent interval” is what Obama got in Iraq—the country stayed quiet long enough to allow him to run for reelection in 2012 as the president who “ended the war.” In truth, however, Obama has helped restart the war.

Is there anything that can be done at this late date to rescue the situation? Sending more arms to the Iraqi military won’t do the trick. After the fall of Fallujah, the United States rushed Hellfire missiles and ScanEagle drones to Iraq. Soon the U.S. will deliver F-16 fighters and Apache gunships. Now Maliki is even said to be asking for American air strikes. None of them will do any good as long as Maliki continues to alienate Sunnis. In fact, heavier weapons may aggravate the situation by allowing Maliki’s men to kill more Sunnis.

To break this worsening cycle of violence, the Obama administration needs to do something it has never done before—get fully engaged in Iraq from the president on down. It needs to see if Iraq might be willing to accept the return of U.S. military advisers, intelligence personnel, Predators, and Special Operations Forces, along with enhanced military aid, in return for political reforms designed to bring Shiites and Sunnis closer together and thus eliminate ISIS’s base of popular support. 

There is actually a point of leverage that Obama could employ if he chose to do so. On April 30 Iraq held a parliamentary election in which Maliki’s Rule of Law slate emerged on top with 92 seats. But that’s not enough to form a government, which requires 165 seats. To win a third term in office, Maliki needs the support of other parties, especially the Kurds and other Shiite factions.

His reelection looked like a foregone conclusion before the fall of Mosul, but the collapse of the Iraqi security forces in the north is a major embarrassment that Maliki will have trouble explaining away. If Washington were to throw whatever weight it has on the side of Maliki’s opponents, there might just be an opportunity to select a new prime minister who would be less identified with Shiite sectarian causes—someone who could begin to heal Iraq’s divisions rather than exacerbate them as Maliki has done.

This would need to be combined with action in Syria to roll back Islamist advances there, meaning principally providing more arms and training to the nonjihadist opposition to Bashar al-Assad. This could be coupled with American airstrikes directed not only against Assad’s forces but also those of ISIS and other Islamist organizations such as the Nusra Front.

This is all a long shot because it presumes (a) that the United States still has leverage that it can employ in Iraq after years of neglect, (b) that the moderate opposition in Syria can still act effectively after years of similar neglect, and (c) that Obama is willing to act strongly and decisively in the Middle East instead of abandoning the region as he seems intent on doing. But it’s the only chance to stop Iraq’s descent further into the abyss. If Obama doesn’t act now, the loss of Syria and Iraq will hover like a dark cloud over his presidency just as the early losses in the Iraq war loomed over his predecessor’s presidency.

Max Boot is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.

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