How Much Responsibility Does Obama Bear for Where Iraq is Now?

How Much Responsibility Does Obama Bear for Where Iraq is Now?

The latest issue of Politico Magazine has a lengthy conversation between several experts on the subject of “Who Lost Iraq?” The piece, which puts the question to a dozen panelists, including veterans from both administrations, purports to be a comprehensive discussion, but I found it oddly incomplete and unsatisfying. In particular, I found it striking that the group did not address the long list of actions that the Obama administration took (and didn’t take) that plausibly contributed to the predicament in which we currently find ourselves. Bush’s actions and Iraqi actions are covered in some detail, and rightly so. But Obama’s? Not so much (except for a brief but trenchant summary from Kim Kagan).

For the record, let’s stipulate that the Bush administration will always bear some responsibility for the situation in Iraq, for good or for ill. Invading Iraq was a consequential step, one that President Bush likely would not have made if he had known then what we know now about Iraq. (Of course, that counterfactual is a logical impossibility, because the only reason we know what we know now is because the United States invaded — a fact that partisan critics consistently ignore.)

Let’s also stipulate that the Iraqis will always bear some responsibility for the situation. I would go further: They bear the lion’s share of the responsibility. U.S. leaders made many mistakes, but not nearly as many as Iraqi leaders did and continue to make.

The Politico piece covers that terrain adequately enough. But then it falls distressingly short of a serious consideration of Obama’s actions and what, if anything, those actions contributed to the current situation. I discussed these actions and inactions briefly earlier (and in an amplified form here) and they still form a useful preliminary bill of particulars:

  • President Obama invested minimal personal capital, abandoning the leader-to-leader-cultivated relationship that the Bush administration prioritized.
  • The administration lead was Vice President Joe Biden, a person of considerable stature, but who had to overcome an especially high hurdle before he could win the trust of the Iraqis because of his earlier proposal to divide up Iraq.
  • Obama’s initial country team in Iraq never achieved the unity of effort of the Gen. David Petraeus, Amb. Ryan Crocker team.
  • Once a competent negotiating team was assembled, the administration appeared to undercut it with deliberate leaks about the likely failure of negotiations.
  • The theory that convincing Iraqis we would leave would elicit cooperative behavior proved flawed. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was even less cooperative with the Obama administration than he had been with Bush.
  • The State Department never adequately resourced nor planned for the daunting post-war mission its own strategy required.
  • The administration talked only of ending the Iraq war, and made little effort to mobilize political support at home or abroad for any follow-on policy to secure the gains that we and the Iraqis had together won at great cost.
  • Finally, some would argue that the president did not really want to leave meaningful numbers of troops in Iraq and so the administration never seriously pursued a status of forces agreement, only going through the motions.

These mistakes help explain why the United States found itself in the position of withdrawing entirely from Iraq in 2011, despite the expressed official desire of the Obama administration to negotiate a deal that would allow for a stay-behind-force to assist in the training/stabilization mission going forward.

The last gasp version of the deal that fell apart at the end involved a smallish force of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq — but this did not happen because the Obama administration refused to let them stay in Iraq under a form of immunity protection that was only guaranteed at the executive branch level (not ratified in law by the Iraqi parliament). Ironically, that is precisely the arrangement under which the Obama administration has reintroduced U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq, and in the numbers roughly equivalent to the last offer on the table in 2011. How much such a force would have been a game changer, or at least helpful, over the past three years is impossible to say with certainty, though it is surely relevant that the Obama administration considers such a deployment helpful now. Surely such a force would have been more helpful and consequential when the situation was less dire and there was more peace to preserve?

Even stipulating that the Iraqis, and Maliki in particular, bear the most blame does not absolve President Obama. Former Prime Minister Maliki was indeed a disappointment, but under certain periods he was less of a disappointment than others. A useful thought exercise is to compare Maliki’s performance across the following four periods: 1) pre-surge, 2) during the Bush surge, 3) during Obama but pre-withdrawal, and 4) post-withdrawal. Maliki’s performance in the second period was clearly the best and in the fourth period clearly the worst; periods one and three are perhaps a toss-up. The differences in performance are real and, perhaps even game changing. And those differences surely are partly a function of how the Americans performed their part of the relationship.

In other words, there is a rich discussion to be had about which Obama action/inaction or set of Obama actions/inactions should shoulder the most blame. It is a shame the Politico conversation did not engage in that discussion.