It hasn’t yet entered our political debate, but Barack Obama is on course to become the president who lost Iraq. This could be a sleeper issue that does great damage to his bid for reelection, as the man whose case for leadership rested on opposition to the war may become the man who engineered a tragic and devastating “end” to it.
Signs of Iraq’s unraveling are everywhere. The increasing and unchallenged influence of Iran has led Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to give parliamentary space to Iranian proxies and to offer robust support for Tehran-backed Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In northern Iraq, even America’s closest, most democratically minded allies, the Kurds, are turning despotic and sidling up to Iran. Across the country, suicide bombing is rising, and partisan ill will threatens to pull the body politic apart.
This is the natural result of nearly three years of an American policy focused on abandoning rather than securing—disowning rather than building on—our hard-won gains. Even by the antiwar president’s own reckoning he had inherited a success in Iraq. “From getting rid of Saddam, to reducing violence, to stabilizing the country, to facilitating elections,” Obama told American troops stationed in Iraq in May, 2009, “you have given Iraq the opportunity to stand on its own as a democratic country. That is an extraordinary achievement.”
Since then, he has failed to keep that achievement on track. In March 2010, when parliamentary gridlock effectively froze Iraqi politics, Washington barely lifted a finger to ensure progress and guide the country toward a favorable outcome. All those Democrats on Capitol Hill who were once triumphantly obsessed with Iraq’s inability to meet political “benchmarks” had nothing to say as the Iraqi stalemate sent the country into a debilitating political reversal. What emerged from nearly a year of cynical horse-trading were an authoritarian Maliki and a markedly increased leadership role for extremist Shiites. Moreover, the ill-conceived governing coalitions could barely agree enough to enforce parking laws. All the while, Washington refused to exercise any leverage through conditionality of aid and support. Such absenteeism is the defining characteristic of Obama’s “responsible exit.” Among Iraqis, distrust, stagnation, and tribalism began to reappear. The result has been increasingly, and predictably, deadly.
As things stand, the U.S. is supposed to remove all American forces from Iraq at the end of this year. This will not only open the door to increased chaos, but deprive us of critical leverage in a still-salvageable Muslim democracy next door to Iran. There are negotiations afoot to keep a reduced number of American troops in Iraq after the hard drawdown date. But as with virtually every Obama maneuver pertaining to foreign policy, holding out hope of a meaningful step in the direction of American strength seems foolish. If an ineffectual compromise leaves behind a small number of hamstrung American advisors, things will likely continue to deteriorate. Headlines about a failing Iraq will be inescapable.
In other words, Obama will suffer on the front that marked the first feather in his cap: his opposition to the Iraq war. With his own words of presidential praise for Iraq to play back to him, his pledges to drawdown responsibly, his subsequent trail of indifference, and an American public growing more suspicious of his every instinct, he will be made to answer for letting the most hard-won achievement in recent American history backslide on his watch. If he looks toward lingering anti-Iraq sentiment to pull him out of trouble, he’ll be burned. Iraq, after all, had become a surprising bright spot on the American horizon. And the last few presidential and midterm elections reflect an American voting public that has elevated fickleness to a kind of determinative patriotism. Not that they’re wrong. The state of the country shows that we’ve been failed by both parties. There will be no room in voters’ broken hearts to let the president slide on a case of national defeat.