Austin Bay has a good piece on Iraq up at PJ.
Also see this in National Review:
We had gained, at a frightful cost in lives and treasure, a priceless strategic asset, namely the possibility of Iraq as a strong military ally, hosting U.S. forces as long as we needed to keep them there, engaged against the extremists in Syria and Iran, as well as al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and their sympathizers among the Arab states. And the prospect of a successful democracy (however rudimentary and corrupt) functioning at the heart of the Middle East gave enormous hope to the pro-democracy movements of the region. In order to consolidate those gains it was absolutely vital for the U.S. to make a long-term commitment and back it up with a long-term military presence.
So what did Obama do? He did what he normally does, which is to counteract what little capacity for action the U.S. national-security establishment retains when left on autopilot. He has visited Iraq only once during his presidency, early in 2009; but even then he only visited troops, and declined to meet with any senior Iraqi officials. He has met with Prime Minister Maliki only twice, once in December 2011 and once in November 2013, by which time the current debacle was well in train. By all accounts, Obama barely lifted a finger to preserve a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq, even when — as Dexter Filkins recently reported in a phenomenal feature for The New Yorker — all major Iraqi factions were asking, in private if not in public, for the U.S. to stay.
From that New Yorker article, published in late April, almost two months ago:
I asked Edwar about the elections, whether change might save the country. She looked at me with tired eyes. “We are going into—how do you say it?” she said.
“The abyss?” a colleague offered.
“Yes—the abyss,” Edwar said. “Yes, yes, yes.”
But Obama, of course, had no idea.
Also, see this about the negotiations between the administration and Maliki’s government in 2011, about the withdrawal of US troops. And remember that this piece appears in the markedly pro-Obama New Yorker:
President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” Jeffrey told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.
The last American combat troops departed Iraq on December 18, 2011. Some U.S. officials believe that Maliki never intended to allow soldiers to remain; in a recent e-mail, he denied ever supporting such a plan, saying, “I am the owner of the idea of withdrawing the U.S. troops.” Many Iraqi and American officials are convinced that even a modest force would have been able to prevent chaos—not by fighting but by providing training, signals intelligence, and a symbolic presence. “If you had a few hundred here, not even a few thousand, they would be coöperating with you, and they would become your partners,” Askari told me. “But, when they left, all of them left. There’s no one to talk to about anything.”
Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies.
“We used to restrain Maliki all the time,” Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, the deputy commander in Iraq until January, 2011, told me. “If Maliki was getting ready to send tanks to confront the Kurds, we would tell him and his officials, ‘We will physically block you from moving if you try to do that.’ ” Barbero was angry at the White House for not pushing harder for an agreement. “You just had this policy vacuum and this apathy,” he said. “Now we have no leverage in Iraq. Without any troops there, we’re just another group of guys.” There is no longer anyone who can serve as a referee, he said, adding, “Everything that has happened there was not just predictable—we predicted it.”
WTF does Ben Rhodes know about Iraq? Obama’s own ignorance wouldn’t be so bad if he had the brains to appoint people who weren’t ignorant (although that hardly would fix the deeper problems with Obama), but here’s what I wrote about Ben Rhodes about six weeks ago:
Obama’s foreign policy advisors: the parade of the puerile Best and Brightest—First we have Ben Rhodes, fiction writer morphed into Obama’s deputy National Security Advisor while barely in his mid-thirties, with nary a bit of foreign policy experience under his belt except what he learned on the job. But he has a way with words, and that’s what we want, don’t we?
At any rate, whoever is advising Obama, and whatever the source of the information about his role in Iraq, there is agreement on one thing: Obama was hardly engaged in Iraq at all.
It occurs to me that at present, Iraq’s situation vis a vis the Obama administration could be Benghazi write large (Rhodes was a major player in that, too). That is, Obama instituted a policy in each country—and in the case of Iraq it was his total disengagement—that he must pretend is working even if it’s not. He can’t admit making a mistake; that would be the worst thing, much worse in his opinion than what might actually happen to our people in Benghazi or Baghdad, or to the Iraqi people. To bomb ISIS forces—or even to rescue our embassy personnel as ISIS threatens to attack Baghdad—would be to admit his policies exposed them to grave danger. In this case, his policy “working” doesn’t mean peace in Iraq, it just means leaving the Iraqis to the own devices, which includes killing each other (all Bush’s fault, of course!) and pretending it’s not dangerous to American personnel still there, or to American interests in the region as a whole.
The New Yorker article—which by the way is well worth reading in its entirety—describes the situation in Iraq as it existed before the pullout:
After nine years of brokering agreements, the Americans had made themselves indispensable. “We were hardwired into the Iraqi political system,” Crocker told me. “From the very first days, they were all deeply suspicious of each other. Concession and compromise meant betrayal and death. What we could do is make them listen to us. It required constant engagement: we’d go to Maliki and explain our views, and ask him if he’d consider something. Maybe we would finally get him to say that he would, provided the Sunni leadership would do a series of things first. So we’d go back to the Sunnis. That’s the way it had to work.
“We are not doing that anymore,” Crocker said, “and the system is still too underdeveloped, and there’s too much suspicion, for their leaders to do it on their own. That trusted middleman is still us. And we are not there.”
Over time, another generation might have sprung up that would be more used to dealing with each other. Maybe so, maybe not—these things are highly recalcitrant to change, but the actual experience of working together over time might have improved things at least somewhat. At any rate, it wouldn’t have taken that many Americans being there to try, and after all the sacrifices we made it would have been worth it to try. But we ran out of time, and we ran out of interest—and Obama never really had a particle of interest in it anyway.
I didn’t see any mention in the New Yorker article of ISIS. Which is odd, because according to this article from National Review, asking for help with the brewing situation of violence in Syria spilling over into Iraq was one of the main reasons for Maliki’s trip to the US back in November of 2013:
The civil war in Syria would inevitably threaten the stability of Iraq, and potentially turn into a cataclysmic regional conflict. Hence, opponents of intervention in Syria should have realized that the only alternative to intervening in Syria was to send U.S. forces back into Iraq, in order to seal off the Iraq–Syria border and buttress the Iraqi security forces.
But instead of coopting the Syrian resistance, or — the next best thing — sealing the border between Syria and Iraq, we did nothing. By the start of 2013 we had abandoned both the Sunni resistance in Syria and the Sunni heartland in Iraq to Islamist networks, particularly ISIS. The Syrian civil war’s slide across the border into Iraq rapidly became a reality. Violence increased throughout the year until Maliki came begging for American help in November 2013. But Obama hadn’t done anything to stop the region from sliding back into chaos and there was no point in starting now. Maliki left empty-handed, with little choice but to throw himself at the mercy of the Iranians — and hope for survival in a revival of the Wahhabi-Iranian proxy war.
When Obama got to power, a tenuous peace held in the Middle East, and the U.S. stood at the height of its influence and prestige in the region. Of course, the Middle East is a devilishly tricky place; upheaval is always around the corner; and the U.S. can’t single-handedly control any region. But it should be obvious to anyone who takes an honest look at the events of the last five years that the Obama administration’s whole approach to foreign policy was bound to make the Middle East a much more dangerous place.
Obama’s skepticism of American power apparently blinded him to how vital that power was to the maintenance of peace and stability. Perhaps this discomfort with American power meant the gains of the Iraq war were a burden to him. If so, he couldn’t do anything to reverse the 4,500 lives we lost and $1 trillion we spent to liberate Iraq. But maybe he could make people stop saying the sacrifice had been worth it.
That of course assumes Obama wants peace and stability there. And what about “perhaps this discomfort with American power meant the gains of the Iraq war were a burden to him”? There should be no “perhaps” there. But it wasn’t just his “discomfort” with (i.e. hatred of and desire to reduce) American power that was motivating him; with Obama it’s always politics, too. He could not stand the possibility of having the war that he and the left had so strongly opposed there have a chance of succeeding in even a modest way.
I suppose it’s possible that someone or something might push Obama to intervene in some way. He’s—thinking about it. Perhaps he’s afraid of another Benghazi, although that hardly even cramped his style. But whatever he manages to do (and my guess is that there will be no action, or an exceptionally minimal one) will not change the fact of his abandonment of the situation in Iraq when a little help might have gone a long way.