Commentary Magazine


Iraq, Syria, and American Foreign Policy

Recent developments in Syria and Iraq make clear that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East–a policy of disengagement disguised as “leading from behind”–is in a shambles.

In Iraq, fighting intensifies between the Shiite-dominated armed forces and Sunni tribesmen. The trouble started on Tuesday when security forces attacked Sunni protesters near Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100. Sunnis retaliated with attacks on the security forces, who in turn escalated their own attacks on Sunnis, to include using helicopter gunships against Sunni fighters in Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad. Many Sunnis are now beginning to link their revolt to that of Syrian Sunnis, to suggest that both are fighting Shiite dictators. This may be an exaggeration, but that is the perception Prime Minister Maliki has fostered, unrestrained by American pressure, with his vindictive and foolish attempts to prosecute leading Sunnis.

President Obama tried to put a happy face on his failure to renegotiate a Status of Forces Agreement. When on October 21, 2011, he announced the end of talks with the Iraqis, he said, “This will be a strong and enduring partnership. With our diplomats and civilian advisors in the lead, we’ll help Iraqis strengthen institutions that are just, representative and accountable. We’ll build new ties of trade and of commerce, culture and education, that unleash the potential of the Iraqi people. We’ll partner with an Iraq that contributes to regional security and peace, just as we insist that other nations respect Iraq’s sovereignty.”

Predictably, it hasn’t worked out that way–instead Iraq is turning increasingly violent and American influence is at a nadir. Far from stabilizing the region, Iraq is contributing to instability–both because its government is supporting the Assad regime in its civil war and because Iraqi Sunni extremists are increasingly fighting against the Assad regime.

Obama has tried to do as little as possible about the Syria conflict even as the death toll climbed north of 70,000, as refugee flows destabilized neighboring states, and as al-Qaeda-linked extremists gained increasing ground. Now that the administration has finally conceded that U.S. intelligence agencies agree, “with varying degrees of confidence,” with Israeli, British and French counterparts that Assad has a crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons, America’s standoffish posture must change. If it doesn’t, Obama will have no credibility to lay out any red lines for Iran or North Korea.

But even action now, however warranted and overdue, will not be as effective as action could have been a year or two ago, before the conflict had become so deadly and debilitating. Many voices in and out of the administration urged Obama to act, but apparently paralyzed by the Iraq Syndrome, he has refused to do much of anything. Unfortunately, the longer the U.S. has waited to act, the harder it becomes to imagine a future Syrian government ever being able to pick up the pieces and to pacify the entire government. Both Syria and Iraq could continue to destabilize the entire region for a long time to come.