- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Last week, President Obama did something neither he nor his staff ever expected to do: he ordered ground troops to return to a combat zone in Iraq. Yes, it is a very limited deployment, and President Obama’s body language and caveats indicate he thinks it is even more limited than it looks. Tellingly, he has deployed them without the customary immunity guarantees that a sizable and sustained deployment normally would require. Beyond raising awkward questions about why the lack of those guarantees prevented the stay-behind force and yet did not prevent the redeployment force, the lack of immunity suggests that the president sees this as an extremely limited deployment — one that might lead to some tailored airstrikes by the United States but might not lead to anything at all. In fact, it is possible that these few hundred troops will not do much more than observe the final collapse of Iraqi security forces.
Even so, putting boots on the ground in the middle of the Iraq maelstrom is a dramatic reversal by a man who became president because he opposed confronting Iraq militarily despite a broad bipartisan consensus in favor of doing so. Now, in the absence of any consensus in favor of a military response, Obama has done just that.
Because he has tried the alternative — a strategy of restraint — and that approach has failed. The president implemented a strategy of restraint in Syria — this despite indulging some rhetorical flourishes of a few interventionist threats and red-lines. The president also implemented the restraint strategy in Iraq, essentially since he took office but especially since 2011.
The advocates of restraint won the policy battle on Syria and Iraq, their policy was largely implemented, and now the President is confronting the fruits of that policy.
At the outset, the strategy seemed promising. When the Obama came to office, Iraq was on such a positive trajectory that the administration could boast, as it did repeatedly, that Iraq would be one of the greatest success stories of the president’s foreign policy. Moreover, when the president opted for restraint in Syria, it looked like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was on the ropes and would be toppled within six months even if the United States did nothing. Restraint seemed to be a cheap way of accomplishing core national security objectives.
Of course, there were seasoned voices that warned against restraint. Colin Kahl, the Pentagon official in charge of Iraq before the withdrawal and a stalwart defender of Obama’s strategies, claims otherwise. He told the New York Times, "The notion that Syria would completely fall apart and become this major staging ground for Nusra and ISIS, which wasn’t even ISIS at the time, I don’t think people anticipated and I don’t think could have been anticipated" The opposite, however, is true. Shadow Government is one place to look for such warning. See, for example, my warning of how Obama’s Iraq strategy had "thrown a life-line to AQI [the ISIS predecessor]" back in November of 2011. My wingman, Will Inboden, likewise warned of how Syria was negatively affecting Iraq. Many other people warned of the negative consequences of leaving Iraq, and one particularly prescient piece, "The Syrian Spillover: Is Anyone Prepared for the Unintended Consequences of the War for Syria," bears re-reading today.
Nevertheless, restraint looked attractive to Obama and he tried it, with results that are catastrophic. Even though restraint failed before, some advocates have urged the president to double down on the strategy. The president might yet heed that advice, but it is clear that he believes he first has to try some alternatives, and is desperate enough to flirt with doing the opposite of what brought him into power.
The biggest problem with the restraint strategy is that it offers little prospect of producing what Obama has already identified as the critical ingredient in success: better behavior by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Back in 2009, the theory was that if we did less, and credibly threatened Maliki that we would abandon him, this would stop his free riding and flirtations with sectarianism, and produce better behavior. As Barry Posen, one prominent restraint advocate, put it, "Some, including me, believed there was a chance that after the United States left, Maliki would stop cheap riding on U.S. power and throw some bones to the Sunni Arabs in the hopes of consolidating the quiescence U.S. military and political efforts helped to achieve." Of course, that is not what happened. Instead, as multiple people with hard-won experience on Iraq matters predicted, downgrading our relationship with Maliki and then leaving Iraq altogether markedly increased his sectarian behavior.
President Obama is now trying with a very small deployment to do what a more robust commitment earlier on was supposed to achieve. If the limited deployment doesn’t work, Obama could at that time revert back to the restraint strategy, but since it yielded such disastrous results that will be a very bitter pill to swallow.
Advocates of restraint try to sweeten the pill by claiming either (a) Iraq was lost from the get go, or (b) we have no meaningful stakes in the collapse of Iraq. The first sweetener does not work well for an administration that already declared mission accomplished back in 2011. The second sweetener is probably worse, for there are few experienced hands in either party who believe that what is happening in Syria and Iraq today is a trivial matter for U.S. national security. The president might believe the first and not feel free to say it. I doubt he believes the second.
Restraint was tried. Restraint failed. So the president is trying a bit of interventionism. The failure of restraint does not prove that intervention is the best choice now. I, for one, am not optimistic that this latest gambit will work. But the demonstrable failure of restraint apparently made a persuasive enough case to convince the most skeptical audience of all, President Obama, to try a limited intervention.