What to Do When Your Man Just Won’t Commit, Baghdad Edition
Obama, soft power, and the struggle for Iraq.
I’ve been highly critical of President Barack Obama’s tenure as America’s commander in chief. But his shortcomings in this regard hardly came as a shock. Start your presidency with the premise that the United States can end wars simply by withdrawing from the battlefield and you’re asking for trouble. Signal to the world that you’ve grown weary of the burdens of Pax Americana, that you’re eagerly shedding your global responsibilities to do nation-building at home, and bad stuff happens. Deterrence breaks down. Adversaries grow emboldened. Unmoored allies start taking matters into their own hands, lashing out in ways that disregard U.S. interests. International order frays. A rising tide of conflict, instability, even chaos ensues.
In short, President Obama’s less-than-stellar record wielding the instruments of American hard power, while regrettable, was highly predictable, a story largely foretold. More surprising, however, has been the president’s decidedly mixed performance on the soft power front as well. After all, diplomacy, engagement, and persuasion were supposed to be Obama’s forte. The masterful deployment of non-kinetic means to advance the country’s strategic interests was to be the hallmark of his administration.
Yes, it’s true, that over the past 15 months or so the president has laid claim to a string of diplomatic accomplishments — in particular the normalization of relations with Cuba, the nuclear deal with Iran, the Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade (TPP), and the Paris climate change agreement. And to be fair, if America’s history with liberalizing trade deals is any guide, TPP will be a net boon for the U.S. economy and a major credit to Obama’s legacy (assuming, of course, that congressional assent can be secured). But as for the rest of it, color me skeptical, at best.
With respect to the so-called successes of Cuba and Iran, let’s be charitable and just say it’s much too soon to tell. If Cuba is a far more humane and free society 10 years from now; if the Islamic Republic is no closer to nuclear breakout come 2030, well, the president will really have something to crow about. Until then, it’s at least as likely (I’d say more likely) that, especially in the case of Iran, we’ll be watching a replay of our experience with the 1994 Agreed Framework on North Korea’s nuclear program — a deal that was hailed at the time as an historic breakthrough, but which in retrospect only kicked the can down the road, buying an implacable adversary breathing space to gather its strength and become even more dangerous, postponing the day of reckoning to a time when securing our interests will only be possible at a much higher price. I hope I’m wrong, but fear I’m right. We’ll just have to see.
As for the Paris agreement, it’s a largely aspirational deal whose success is dependent on almost 200 self-interested nation states fulfilling a set of pledges that are economically painful, politically risky, and totally unenforceable. What could possibly go wrong?
Turning now to the negative side of Obama’s soft power ledger: Even a short list of the failures is impressive. The sins of commission include the Russian reset and multiple botched efforts at Palestinian peace. In Syria, the diplomatic car wrecks of Geneva I, II, and — for now, at least — Geneva III as well. The red line on chemical weapons that was drawn, violated, and then unceremoniously erased at the first sign if might actually have to be enforced. Not to mention of course the fact that one longstanding alliance relationship after another is experiencing a crisis of confidence.
But perhaps most significant of all is the overriding sin of omission, of an America that is almost universally perceived as not meaningfully present when it comes to far too many of the world’s most dangerous crises, as not leading, as not mobilizing effective multinational responses. Too often irrelevant, too often AWOL. Communicating indifference, confusion, or oftentimes simply not communicating anything at all to friend and foe alike. Where’s America? What’s the policy? What does the United States really want? Distressingly, those are the most frequent questions that national security experts have heard from foreign interlocutors throughout the Obama years.
Nowhere has the administration’s soft power deficit been felt more tragically than in Iraq. The failure in 2011 to secure an arrangement for an enduring U.S. military presence is well known. Less frequently noted was the near-total lack of any sustained personal involvement in the negotiations by the president himself — an almost certain kiss of death for U.S. efforts, as anyone with any experience with Iraqi politics post-2003 could have told you.
Compounding the fatal error of military withdrawal was a simultaneous U.S. political withdrawal. Having “ended” the Iraq war, Obama simply checked out. Iraq was put in the rear-view mirror, more or less erased from official Washington’s consciousness. Engagement in Iraqi affairs by the administration’s most senior leadership came to a virtual halt. Even Vice President Joe Biden, a bona fide frequent flyer to Iraq during Obama’s first term, stopped going.
Left largely to his own devices, with no meaningful American check, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s worst instincts were fully unleashed — a nasty combination of Shiite chauvinism and authoritarianism. Sectarian tensions skyrocketed. State institutions, including the judiciary, were systematically undermined. The professional leadership of the Iraqi army was eviscerated, purged in favor of Maliki loyalists.
Throughout 2013, confrontations between Sunni protesters and Maliki’s government soared. Violent clashes escalated. Jihadist groups from Syria exploited the political decay to re-establish footholds in Sunni provinces. At the start of 2014, the Islamic State took over the city of Fallujah and Iraq entered the six-month death spiral that would climax in June when the Islamic State conquered Mosul and a third of the country, bringing its barbarian hordes to the outskirts of Baghdad and triggering the emergency redeployment of U.S. troops.
In the face of this countdown to a new Middle Eastern war, the administration’s passivity, disinterest, and — let’s be frank — sheer cluelessness to the unfolding disaster was astonishing. In an interview that took place just days after the Islamic State’s takeover of Fallujah, the president famously dismissed the group as terrorism’s “jayvee” team. For his part, John Kerry was sworn in as America’s top diplomat in February 2013 just after the first large-scale Sunni protests erupted in Iraq. He thereupon proceeded to spend most of the 16 months leading up to Mosul’s collapse consumed by the quixotic vanity project of attempting to cram peace down the throats of Israelis and Palestinians — a costly investment of diplomatic time, energy, and resources that few others believed stood any chance of success and most were convinced was entirely peripheral to the real strategic threats rapidly gathering in Iraq and Syria. At least 11 trips during that span to Israel and/or the Palestinian territories, as well as numerous others in which the peace process was a major focus. As compared to a single visit to Iraq. That just about captures it. Talk about misplaced priorities. Talk about opportunity costs.
Importantly, and to Obama’s credit, when Mosul fell his administration did respond with a genuine diplomatic surge. Working closely with other Iraqi political parties, and indirectly with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Obama, Biden, and Kerry deserve no small amount of praise for helping force Maliki’s ouster from the prime minister’s office — in the face of not-insignificant resistance from Iran and its point man for Iraq, General Qassem Suleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force. Maliki’s replacement by the more conciliatory figure, Haider al-Abadi, at least created an opportunity for Iraqi politics to move in a less sectarian, more inclusive direction, one that might address the essential challenge of drawing Sunnis back into the state’s fold rather than driving them into the arms of the Islamic State.
Unfortunately, despite having once again demonstrated America’s residual capability to exert real leverage on political outcomes in Baghdad, U.S. engagement in the crucial effort to influence Iraqi politics largely dissipated as soon as Abadi assumed office in September 2014. Obama has consistently — and correctly — stated for years that Iraq cannot be stabilized through military means alone, that its problems ultimately require a political solution that gives all its communities a genuine stake in the country’s success. And yet even now, after committing the United States to a new Iraq war, with the success of his efforts to defeat the Islamic State depending in no small measure on advancing a political accommodation in Baghdad, the president has proven incapable of committing his administration, much less his own personal energies, to the effort.
In the interim, Abadi has struggled immensely. His efforts to reach out to Sunnis, particularly via the formation of provincially-based national guard units, have been consistently stymied by hardline Shiite politicians and Iranian-controlled militias. The strength and influence of these militias have dangerously grown over the past 18 months. It is now clearer than ever that Iran’s game plan for Iraq is precisely what it has already done in Lebanon with Hezbollah — ensure that proxy forces with primary loyalty to the IRGC emerge as the country’s dominant political and military actor, more powerful than any government or the legitimate security structures of the state.
Importantly, however, Iraq is not yet Lebanon. Iran and its allies may indeed be ascendant, but there is ample evidence of continued resistance to its bid for domination — including, critically, among Iraqi Shiites. Quite remarkably, last summer and fall, tens of thousands of Iraqis turned out for weekly protest rallies in Baghdad and several southern cities. They railed against corruption and the lack of basic services. They demanded an independent judiciary. But they also attacked the Islamist political parties that dominate the government, calling for greater secularism and an end to sectarian quotas. They conspicuously flew Iraq’s national flag rather than the Shiite banners favored by the militias. Maybe most critically, the protesters were publicly endorsed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — who specifically called on Abadi to take up a vigorous and comprehensive reform agenda that would address the demands of Iraq’s silent majority.
In response, Abadi launched an initiative focused on cutting the government’s size and weakening the position of his Shiite rivals, including Maliki. The backlash against him and the protesters by the Islamists, the militias, and Iran was fierce. Though initially on the defensive, and concerned about confronting Sistani directly, Iran’s allies regrouped, using their position of strength within Iraq’s parliament and other institutions to foil Abadi’s program. By the late fall, his efforts had largely run out of steam.
Nevertheless, the eruption of the mass protest movement, with its nationalist, non-sectarian ethos, coupled with the strong backing of the powerful religious establishment in Najaf, was a potent reminder that the battle for Iraq is not over quite yet. Iraq’s political center received a much-needed boost in late December when the U.S.-trained Iraqi security services, backed by American air power and some Sunni tribal units, retook the Sunni city of Ramadi from the Islamic State, purposefully marginalizing the role of the Iranian-backed militias in the battle. It represented the Iraqi army’s first real claim to victory since the debacle of the 2014 Islamic State invasion, and the most significant step yet toward rebuilding the Iraqi people’s confidence in the country’s official security structures.
One more recent data point suggesting that Iran’s victory in Iraq may not yet be the fait accompli that many assume: After Saudi Arabia executed the prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, last month, Iran’s allies in Iraq demanded that diplomatic relations with Riyadh be severed and attempted to organize demonstrations in front of the Saudi embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone. While critical of Nimr’s execution, Abadi — again, with Sistani’s full backing — rejected cutting ties to the Saudis and ordered security forces to prevent protesters from storming the Green Zone. Even more surprising, at an emergency Arab League meeting, Iraq — in stark contrast to Lebanon — supported the Saudi sponsored final statement, which condemned the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran while demanding that Iran stop interfering in Saudi affairs.
Given the U.S. stake in seeing Abadi (and Sistani) succeed in their effort to constrain Iran’s influence in Iraq, and promote a less sectarian agenda, Obama’s lack of engagement in Baghdad’s struggles is perplexing. There’s almost no doubt that Abadi would welcome being able to rely on the sustained personal involvement and support of the U.S. president to help counter his political rivals and off-set Iranian pressure. Is Obama’s aversion ideological? Would it require him taking too much ownership of Iraq, a.k.a. Bush’s war? Has he convinced himself that U.S. efforts to shape Iraq’s internal politics would inevitably come to naught, or could even be counter-productive? Or does it have more to do with Iran? Is Obama worried that a concerted effort to counter Iranian influence in Baghdad might undermine his larger agenda of rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, and somehow end up endangering the nuclear deal that he sees as so central to his legacy? Or is it all more just a matter of incompetence, an inability on Obama’s part to assess accurately U.S. interests and priorities, and orchestrate the diplomatic strategies necessary to advance them?
It is almost certainly expecting too much from Obama at this late date in his presidency to adopt the posture of a wartime commander in chief, prepared to do whatever it takes to mobilize the nation, the military, and our allies in a full-court press to dismantle the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate with all due haste and deliver the jihadists a swift and merciless battlefield defeat before the end of his term. But is it really too much to ask that he at least take the lead in waging a serious diplomatic campaign to advance the war effort as much as possible, especially in Iraq, where he himself has repeatedly recognized the absolute centrality of the political aspects of the conflict? Prime Minister Abadi may not be an ideal leader, but he is almost certainly better than the most likely alternative we confront: an outright takeover of the Iraqi state by the Iranian-backed militias — a risk that has only grown as the price of oil has collapsed and Iraq faces the rising danger of a full-fledged financial meltdown.
Helping Abadi stave off that kind of catastrophe, while making some of the tough decisions on reconciliation that the war effort requires, ought to be a central goal for President Obama — one that should not be outside his reach or resources if he’s prepared to apply the prestige of his office to the task. No one should dismiss the leverage that can be built by a U.S. president truly committed to forging a personal partnership with his Iraqi counterparts. Regular phone calls, video teleconferences, and visits by the Secretary of State every four to six weeks to talk strategy, mediate compromises and apply pressure can go a long way. So, too, would brokering a deal with key international financial institutions and U.S. allies to help Abadi (as well as America’s partners in Iraqi Kurdistan) successfully navigate Iraq’s coming economic crunch.
Let’s state what should be obvious: There is a world of difference between an Iraqi prime minister who appears largely to be standing alone as he takes on Iran’s powerful allies and one who is seen to have the sustained backing of the world’s most powerful leader. At least at the margins, that is a partnership that would significantly enhance the prospects that vital decisions get made in Iraq — things like ensuring anti-Islamic State Sunnis receive the arms they need to participate effectively in the coming battle for Mosul; barring the Iranian-controlled militias from playing a major role in Mosul’s liberation; initiating a serious discussion on allowing individual Sunni provinces to form federal regions; and reaching at least a medium-term accommodation between Baghdad and the Kurds that allows both sides to focus their energies on fighting the Islamic State rather than each other.
One would have hoped that this kind of basic diplomatic blocking and tackling would have been instinctive for a president who has launched his country into war — especially when he’s counting on others to carry the brunt of the battle on the ground. Alas, for President Obama, that’s not been the case. But hope springs eternal. The hour is late, but not yet too late. The president may be unwilling to commit thousands of more troops to winning this war. But he should at least be prepared to commit himself fully to the fight.
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