Shadow Government

A most welcome development: Obama’s shift on Iraq

By John Hannah There are some noteworthy developments this past week on the Iraq front that merit attention. First, after Sunday’s horrible bombings in Baghdad, President Obama immediately phoned Prime Minister Maliki and President Talabani to offer condolences and reaffirm U.S. support. The president also issued a strong statement condemning the attacks and making clear that “America ...

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By John Hannah

There are some noteworthy developments this past week on the Iraq front that merit attention. First, after Sunday’s horrible bombings in Baghdad, President Obama immediately phoned Prime Minister Maliki and President Talabani to offer condolences and reaffirm U.S. support. The president also issued a strong statement condemning the attacks and making clear that “America will stand with Iraq’s people and government as a close friend and partner as Iraqis prepare for elections early next year, continue to take responsibility for their future, and build greater peace and opportunity. Together, we will continue to work for lasting security, dignity, and justice.”

This response from the Obama administration was in stark contrast to two months ago, when twin suicide truck bombs hit the Iraqi Ministries of Finance and Foreign Affairs, killing at least 100 people and injuring hundreds more. The president was largely missing in action on that occasion — no phone calls, no statement. Instead, Vice President Biden spoke to Maliki and issued a one-sentence readout of the call.

Iraq’s heightened profile on the president’s radar screen is only to be applauded. With more than 100,000 American combat troops still in country, and Iraq’s success by no means a foregone conclusion, it’s entirely fitting that the commander-in-chief remain intensely focused on the situation there. With just this minor investment in time and political capital, Obama has reminded our soldiers, our enemies, and — perhaps most importantly — the Iraqi people, themselves, of America’s resolve to remain engaged and to help Iraqis consolidate their political, economic and security gains. For our Iraqi allies, it’s hard to over-estimate the reassurance provided by this kind of steady determination from the president of the United States.

Also noteworthy in this respect was Obama’s public remarks during his Oct. 20 Oval Office meeting with Maliki. True, the president opened with a long salvo on Afghanistan that left the Iraqis somewhat miffed. But he recovered with his first meaningful invocation of the “d” word as applied to the Iraqi context. And not just once, but on three occasions:

We have seen in the last several months a consolidation of a commitment to democratic politics inside Iraq. … I just want to … reemphasize my administration’s full support for all the steps that can be taken so that Iraq can not only be a secure place and a democratic country, but also a place where people can do business, people can work, families can make a living, and children are well educated. And that broader sense of a U.S. relationship with a democratic Iraq is one that I think all of us are confident we can now achieve.” (emphasis added) 

During his campaign, as well as during the first months of his administration, the president’s default position was to talk Iraq down, and to leave the impression that America’s only stake in the country was to wash our hands of it as soon as possible. That now seems to be changing, as the administration begins to realize that America’s strategic interests could in fact be reasonably well served by having a potentially very prosperous, very powerful democratic friend in what historically has been one of the Arab/Muslim world’s most influential countries. Moreover, this can be achieved through a relatively modest dedication of additional political, economic, and security resources — even as U.S. forces continue to withdraw from Iraq and America’s combat role dramatically diminishes.

If pursued, the president’s shifting paradigm on Iraq and its possible role in American strategy in the Middle East is a most welcome development that deserves encouragement and support from both sides of the political aisle.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

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