New book raises questions about Obama’s handling of Iraq

New book raises questions about Obama’s handling of Iraq

Has Obama fulfilled his most famous national security campaign commitment from 2008: to end the Iraq war "more responsibly" than he says we began it? According to this excerpt from Michael Gordon’s new book on Iraq, the answer may well turn out to be no.

Gordon is considered by many to be the best reporter on the Iraq war and his long-awaited book is likely to shed new light particularly on the last half-decade of U.S. involvement. The excerpt in Sunday’s New York Times covers the Obama administration’s failed effort to negotiate terms for the long-planned-for stay-behind military force. The Obama administration is understandably reluctant to talk about these efforts much, and nowadays when the president mentions Iraq he makes it sound like he never considered anything other than withdrawing all but a handful of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. However, if that was what the president secretly intended all along, it was not what the administration was officially pursuing for the first several years when it tried, unsuccessfully, to negotiate a new Status of Forces Agreement. 

I raised questions about some of these developments as they unfolded (see here, here, and here) and now Gordon’s reporting is pulling back the veil to answer some of those questions.

The picture is not very pretty. Gordon documents:

  • A president unable to engage in effective personal diplomacy at crunch time because he had failed to invest in the hard work of retail diplomacy along the way. This is a problem that extends well past Iraq, as another blockbuster New York Times story makes clear. As an unnamed U.S. diplomat told the NYT: "He’s not good with personal relationships; that’s not what interests him…But in the Middle East, those relationships are essential. The lack of them deprives D.C. of the ability to influence leadership decisions."
  • A team whose wild over-confidence contributed to the failure to react in a timely manner to an unraveling situation. In one of the most devastating items in the piece, Gordon quotes Vice President Biden: "I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki will extend the SOFA," he added, referring to the Status of Forces Agreement the Obama administration hoped to negotiate."
  • A team paralyzed by infighting and poisonous civil-military relations. Gordon reports that Thomas Donilon, Obama’s national security advisor, criticized Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for presenting military advice that ran counter to what the White House wanted to hear.

Perhaps a more adept president would have also failed to secure a follow-on Status of Forces Agreement. It is true that what the United States wanted from the Iraqis to secure an agreement was a very big ask, one that Prime Minister Maliki proved ultimately unwilling to give: immunity granted by the Iraqi parliament for all U.S. troops. But it is also true that the way Obama approached Iraq made it even harder for Maliki to deliver on his side.

Given the prominent role that the Iraq story played in Obama’s approach to the 2008 election, it is ironic that it seems to play no role whatsoever in 2012. If Gordon’s book reinforces the assessment that his excerpt provides, the lower profile may benefit Obama. The closer one looks at the facts, the less they seem to support the campaign spin of a "responsible" end to a troubled war.