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Obama’s Concession on Iraq Might Be a Turning Point for His Foreign Policy

Obama’s Concession on Iraq Might Be a Turning Point for His Foreign Policy

In ordering the air strikes against the Islamic State (formerly called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham), President Barack Obama made a painful concession that he tried mightily to avoid.

I do not mean the implicit concession that he was wrong that the "tides of war are receding" or that "ending" U.S. involvement in Iraq is unlikely to be the great foreign policy success he claimed it would be during the 2012 campaign — painful though those concessions must be.

Rather I refer to another concession that may ultimately prove to be the more important one. And, paradoxically, if Obama internalizes the lesson from it, it could be a turning point that helps salvage some positive elements for his foreign policy legacy.

In authorizing new combat action in Iraq when he did, Obama conceded that his approach of doing less as a way to make others do more was not working — at least not with respect to Iraq.

The Obama team came into office believing that Bush’s approach to allies and partners created perverse incentives for the allies to free ride on U.S. power. The Bush administration was internally divided on this question. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, viewed the matter very much the way the Obama team did — and to a very great extent, greater than either would want to admit, the Obama approach was the Rumsfeld approach. But President Bush himself had come to believe that the way to get allies to do more was to do more yourself — to lead from the front — and to reassure those allies and partners that you would not abandon them.

Obama, in contrast, believed that if you convinced the allies and partners you would not abandon them, they would take you for granted, and never make the painful but necessary steps of reform upon which ultimate success depended.

The difference between these two theories of how to incentivize allies helps explain some of the most consequential strategic choices the Obama administration made: the decision to downgrade the relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki; the decision to set arbitrary timelines on the Afghan surge; the promise to leave Afghanistan regardless of conditions on the ground; and the decision to delay the confrontation with the Islamic State even as it destroyed moderate potential partners in Syria and established an extensive foothold in Iraq.

While the president may have been surprised at how fast the Islamic State advanced into Iraq, he has known for months that it posed a grave threat to U.S. interests there. Yet Obama refused to act. The reason was his embrace of his theory about how to incentivize our Iraqi partners.

President Obama rightly recognized that there was no long-term solution in Iraq until the Iraqi polity picked a less sectarian successor to Maliki. More controversially, Obama rejected multiple appeals for help from the Iraqis (and from our Kurdish partners) earlier in the crisis in the hopes that withholding aid would drive the Iraqis to dump Maliki in a desperate effort to secure American assistance.

Obama stuck with this strategy even after it received setback after setback, and even as the Islamic State grew stronger and stronger. As the crisis mounted, the Obama team doubled down on the approach, offering tantalizing visions of the help that might come, but only if Iraqis dumped Maliki first.

Finally, when Obama was staring at a potential catastrophe in Erbil in the Kurdish region that might eclipse the disaster in Benghazi, he decided he could wait no longer and ordered U.S. forces into combat — despite the failure of Iraqis to meet the hitherto stated conditions for U.S. assistance.

Shortly after Obama acted, the Iraqis finally acted themselves, nominating a (hopefully more inclusive) replacement to Maliki.

In other words, the Iraqis themselves may have been waiting to see if they could trust Obama’s offers of help. Perhaps it was Obama’s initiative that catalyzed the Iraqi’s action, rather than vice-versa, as Obama had intended. That, at least, is how the Bush administration would have interpreted the strategic dynamic.

Obama’s preferred approach has sometimes worked — incentivizing the French to act in Mali is probably the greatest success of Obama’s lead-from-behind strategy — but mostly it has yielded unsatisfying results. Indeed, if the rhetoric coming out of the administration about the threat posed by the Islamic State is correct, one senses that the delay in confronting it may be one of the most consequential and disastrous decisions President Obama has made.

Perhaps Obama learned from this experience the lesson that sometimes the way a great power like the United States gets allies to step up is to first step up itself. If so, that may be a consequential development, too.

President Obama is boasting about what the air strikes achieved on the ground in Iraq. And there is no question that helping the refugees escape the deathtrap on that mountain is a tactical success worth celebrating. But what the air strikes tell us about whether the president can escape his own rhetorical and conceptual traps may be the more consequential development in the long run.