Of all the things to rise up and bedevil President Obama again, Iraq seemed to be low on the list. But now the White House must live with the reality that, almost three years after the war was declared over, American blood could be spilled anew in a conflict that could readily escalate.
Obama's announcement that up to 300 military advisers would be sent to Iraq marks a brutal moment in a brutal stretch for this presidency, one that threatens to indelibly stain not only his foreign policy record but his legacy as well.
This was a man who, as a candidate and as a chief executive, made pulling the United States out of two intractable wars in the Middle East central to his theory of governance. He ended wars, he liked to say. He didn't start them.
Sending a relative handful of forces back to the region doesn't mean he's doing so, of course. "American forces will not be returning to combat," Obama was sure to pledge to the public Thursday, and White House aides insist that this is a limited mission, that the Iraqi government, ultimately, will have to be the ones to repel the forces of the Sunni insurgency and mend the broken country. Still, the move is a tacit acknowledgment that many of the assumptions that Obama and his foreign policy team made about the world have proven to be incorrect:
- That without the leverage of U.S. military power in the country, Iraqi leaders would pursue political change that wouldn't leave Sunnis alienated and antagonized and that its security forces could counter internal threats;
- That Afghanistan would be stable enough for the U.S. to end that war and depart with confidence the government can keep the nation on a stable path;
- That the U.S. could pursue a "reset" with Vladimir Putin's Russia—but then watched his troops take Crimea and threaten the rest of Ukraine;
- That the civil war in Syria could somehow be contained within its borders—and could reach a resolution without American intervention.
More than anything, these events and others have served as a rebuke to Team Obama's worldview that a new generation of leadership could move on from both the Clinton-era and Bush-era policies. Both of those administrations were more hawkish and aggressive about the exercise of American power, whether it was to intercede in regional conflicts in the Balkans or take down Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq.
Disdainful of much of Washington's foreign policy establishment, Obama and his close-knit circle of advisers, on the other hand, talked about engaging Iran diplomatically, using sanctions to punish bad actors, "pivoting" to Asia, and neutralizing the threat of terrorism more bloodlessly through the use of drones. They viewed American power in terms of limits. This was a president, after all, who opposed the U.S. "surge" that arguably stabilized Iraq to the point where Obama could pull the troops out.
Yet here was Obama on Thursday using the language of presidents past such as John Kennedy and George W. Bush, talking of sending "advisers" into a global hot spot and warning of the need to deny "safe haven" to terrorist groups. "Right now, this is the moment when the fate of Iraq hangs in the balance," he said—something that sounded So 10 Years Ago.
That's why Obama's remarks had to have left such a bitter taste. Iraq was a box that his administration had checked. And already, the unrest there is casting fresh doubt on his decision to leave Afghanistan just a few years removed from calling for his own "surge" there. Americans are giving his handling of foreign policy the lowest marks of his presidency. With Syria on fire, Egypt and Libya in turmoil, and Russia meddling in Ukraine, the world has reached up and pulled the once-soaring avatar of change crashing earthward
The White House's best hope is that a political solution can indeed be reached in Iraq and that the crisis falls off the radar screen. Other than targeted airstrikes, there aren't great options for Obama beyond this point: The public is dead set against a further involvement and Congress—especially Obama's fellow Democrats—is skittish. If the president wants to do more on this battlefield, he'll end up owning this in a way he never wanted and, a few years ago, probably couldn't have contemplated.
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