When Barack Obama was first elected, it was in no small part a reaction to what Americans perceived as failed or unnecessary wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president, once elected, expended vast quantities of oxygen bemoaning the burdensome legacy his predecessor had bequeathed him. Repairing relations with the Muslim world, restoring American prestige abroad: Remember that?
Pulling out of Iraq was just another part of what the president saw as a campaign promise kept. He said, “Four years ago, I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/11. And we have.”
My how the tables have turned. The terrorists who attacked us and other like-minded groups are doing very well, thank you. And the Middle East is in a state of collapse. But during the entire unfolding of the so-called Arab Spring, the Obama administration was AWOL, disengaged from supporting U.S. interests, U.S. allies or U.S. values. As a result, al-Qaida and related groups have spread across the region like a cancer, preying on weak states, ungoverned areas and conflict zones. And one such place is Iraq.
When the United States fled Iraq in 2011, the country was stable, reasonably integrated, and on the road to new prosperity and unprecedented freedom. As the troops left, however, the Obama administration also yanked other less visible supports for the new Baghdad government. Counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation ended for all intents and purposes. Vigilance about Sunni-Shiite cooperation also ended. Rather, the White House reposed all of its “Iraq strategy” in one man, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Maliki is neither the devil his enemies would have us believe nor the angel the White House adored for years. Rather, he is a weak leader in the Arab mold, ready to make hard choices only when he is certain there are no easier ones to make first. And so, when the United States had a robust involvement in Iraq, he spoke to the nation, united disparate sects and followed a more democratic line. Once the U.S. vanished, he turned to the other power broker on the scene, Iran. The resulting wedge between Shiites and Sunni has been disastrous for the nation and for its military, which can do little to defend against extremists.
And so we come to the unravelling of the post-Saddam Iraq that the United States helped build. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (variously, ISIS or ISIL) is on the march. It is well trained from the conflict in Syria, well-armed by friends of al-Qaida in the Gulf, and it has tossed the Iraqi government from Mosul, the country’s second largest city, from Tikrit, in the Sunni heartland, and is headed for Baghdad.
This was far from inevitable, but Obama’s choice to walk away from the Middle East sealed the fate of Iraq and too many others. Now faced with disaster, the administration is scrambling to at once appear engaged without doing anything. In Syria, this is virtually impossible, as the myriad of groups battling for and against President Bashar Assad mean that even if Obama belatedly chooses to arm certain among them, there will no clean conclusion to the chaotic war that has killed close on 200,000 people.
As far as Iraq is concerned, the administration has again been determined to ignore pleas for assistance from Baghdad for months. The White House is reportedly mulling some limited support, but as with Syria, delays will mean that terrorists gain ground and regaining it will be all the more challenging. The very least that could happen is a willingness to share intelligence and reconnaissance information about ISIS fighters traveling from Syria to Iraq, drone strikes that are similar to the ones the Obama team so like in Yemen and Pakistan, and a resumption of training for the Iraqi military. Will that happen? Who knows.
The term that Barack Obama prefers to victory is to “end” wars “responsibly”. How did that happen in Iraq? And who will be responsible when the Americans and Europeans and Arabs and Asians of al-Qaida and ISIS finish with Iraq and Syria and turn their attention to the American homeland?