Commentary Magazine


Topic: Anbar Awakening

The President Who Lost Iraq

The New York Times reports that the United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq “to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.” 

This happens in the context of the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, the highest level of violence since 2008. The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt write, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq… The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.”

This was all so predictable, and all so unnecessary. Thanks to the Anbar Awakening and the surge ordered by President Bush, Iraq by 2008 was relatively stable and al-Qaeda was decimated. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being renegotiated in 2011 was meant to lock in those gains. It would have created a strategic alliance with Iraq that would have kept a residual American troop presence there. Yet the Obama administration botched the negotiations and Mr. Obama simply fled Iraq, leaving that fledgling Arab democracy to the tender mercies of Iran and Islamists in the region. (Read this 2011 column by Charles Krauthammer to see how thoroughly the president has made a hash of things.)

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The New York Times reports that the United States is quietly rushing dozens of Hellfire missiles and low-tech surveillance drones to Iraq “to help government forces combat an explosion of violence by a Qaeda-backed insurgency that is gaining territory in both western Iraq and neighboring Syria.” 

This happens in the context of the deaths of more than 8,000 Iraqis in 2013, the highest level of violence since 2008. The Times’s Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt write, “Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become a potent force in northern and western Iraq… The surge in violence stands in sharp contrast to earlier assurances from senior Obama administration officials that Iraq was on the right path, despite the failure of American and Iraqi officials in 2011 to negotiate an agreement for a limited number of United States forces to remain in Iraq.”

This was all so predictable, and all so unnecessary. Thanks to the Anbar Awakening and the surge ordered by President Bush, Iraq by 2008 was relatively stable and al-Qaeda was decimated. The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was being renegotiated in 2011 was meant to lock in those gains. It would have created a strategic alliance with Iraq that would have kept a residual American troop presence there. Yet the Obama administration botched the negotiations and Mr. Obama simply fled Iraq, leaving that fledgling Arab democracy to the tender mercies of Iran and Islamists in the region. (Read this 2011 column by Charles Krauthammer to see how thoroughly the president has made a hash of things.)

It’s unclear whether America’s “patchwork response,” in the words of the Times, will make any real differences when it comes to pacifying Iraq. And one gets the sense that the outcome doesn’t really matter to Mr. Obama. In his make-believe world, the president actually counts Iraq as a success on his watch. 

As we have seen in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, when the president loses interest in foreign events, he simply deems them to be successes. If they don’t interest him, they shouldn’t interest us. So civil wars, mass death, the collapse of central governments, the weakening of pro-American regimes, and the rise of militant Islamic forces are perfectly acceptable. As long as we avert our eyes from what’s happening, all will be right with the world. Or so Mr. Obama seems to believe.

He’s wrong about this, as he is wrong about so many other things. After hard-earned and heroic gains, Barack Obama is the president who lost Iraq.

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Obama’s Abandonment of Iraq

Today is the day when Democrats are touting at their convention all of President Obama’s foreign policy achievements. Iraq will be mentioned frequently but only in the context of “ending the war.” Of the endgame in Iraq, little will be said—and for good reason: By not achieving an accord to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011 (for want of will on his own part, I would argue), President Obama has effectively abandoned this country where the U.S.—with the support of Obama’s own secretary of state and convention speaker John Kerry, among other Democratic heavyweights—made such a heavy commitment over the course of the past decade.

In The Daily Beast, Eli Lake speaks with one of those we left behind —Sheikh Ahamd Abu Risha, brother of the slain sheikh who started the Anbar Awakening that turned Sunnis against Al Qaeda and helped the U.S. to avert a looming defeat. Four years ago candidate Obama visited Iraq and told Abu Risha and other tribal leaders that the U.S. would never leave them in the lurch. Lake writes:

“President Obama said he would not forget all the sacrifices that were made,” he said. “Now we look back at that meeting and we think it was political propaganda. What he said, we don’t see it happening”….

He said U.S. military leaders assured him he would receive regular visits from senior figures and diplomats to discuss the relationship that began in Anbar back in 2006 and 2007. “There is no contact right now,” he said. “They don’t visit at all. Ever since the United States withdrew, we haven’t gotten anyone to visit.”

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Today is the day when Democrats are touting at their convention all of President Obama’s foreign policy achievements. Iraq will be mentioned frequently but only in the context of “ending the war.” Of the endgame in Iraq, little will be said—and for good reason: By not achieving an accord to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011 (for want of will on his own part, I would argue), President Obama has effectively abandoned this country where the U.S.—with the support of Obama’s own secretary of state and convention speaker John Kerry, among other Democratic heavyweights—made such a heavy commitment over the course of the past decade.

In The Daily Beast, Eli Lake speaks with one of those we left behind —Sheikh Ahamd Abu Risha, brother of the slain sheikh who started the Anbar Awakening that turned Sunnis against Al Qaeda and helped the U.S. to avert a looming defeat. Four years ago candidate Obama visited Iraq and told Abu Risha and other tribal leaders that the U.S. would never leave them in the lurch. Lake writes:

“President Obama said he would not forget all the sacrifices that were made,” he said. “Now we look back at that meeting and we think it was political propaganda. What he said, we don’t see it happening”….

He said U.S. military leaders assured him he would receive regular visits from senior figures and diplomats to discuss the relationship that began in Anbar back in 2006 and 2007. “There is no contact right now,” he said. “They don’t visit at all. Ever since the United States withdrew, we haven’t gotten anyone to visit.”

Why the lack of contact? Lake quotes Jim Jeffrey, the last US ambassador in Baghdad (a position currently unfilled), as follows:

Jeffrey, who left his post as ambassador at the end of May, said the meetings have not yet happened because without the U.S. military in Iraq it’s difficult for U.S. officials to travel to Anbar. “We have every intention of maintaining contact with the awakening and other people,” Jeffrey said. “We had several meetings after the military completed its withdrawal with tribal sheikhs from the greater Baghdad area, but it’s been hard to get people out to Anbar because of the security situation.”

No surprise, that lack of contact and travel; it was precisely what numerous observers, including me, expected would happen when U.S. troops would pull out. But State Department and administration spokesmen spent years assuring anyone who would listen that even with the troops gone, a mega-embassy relying on some 15,000 contractors could continue to carry on vital missions. Now the falsity of those claims has been starkly revealed: U.S. diplomats, devoid of military support for transportation, find it hard to get out of their own embassy in the old Green Zone, thus leaving the old Awakening leaders to find for themselves even as Prime Minister Maliki’s increasingly sectarian security forces increasingly persecute high-profile Sunnis including Vice President Tariq al Hashemi.

Having pulled our troops out, Obama has taken American influence out of Iraq too, giving the Iranians and their proxies a free hand. Thus, despite U.S. protests, the Maliki government is apparently allowing Iranian aircraft to overfly its air space to provide aid to the murderous Assad regime in Syria. The U.S. pullout has had other parlous consequences including allowing Al Qaeda in Iraq, once on the verge of annihilation, to stage a resurgence and to carry out fresh waves of bombings this year.

Iraq is not a geopolitical disaster, at least not yet; it is managing to muddle through in many years and even to increase oil production. But it is hard to avoid a sinking feeling that the Awakening leaders and our other allies in Iraq will not fare well in the years ahead in a country that is turning increasingly authoritarian under a hard-line Shiite leader. They have been abandoned just like the Hungarians, South Vietnamese, and other friends of America over the years. That is a part of the president’s record you won’t hear about at the convention.

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