Iraq Is a Terrible First Test for Obama’s New Foreign Policy

The U.S. will partner with the Iraqi government to confront a terrorist threat, but Iraq’s ineffective military and corrupt leadership make it an ineffective partner.

President Obama gives the commencement address at the graduation ceremony at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point on May 28, 2014 in West Point, New York.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
June 23, 2014, 9:44 a.m.

The crisis un­fold­ing in Ir­aq is the first real test for the new Amer­ic­an for­eign policy Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced in late May — but it’s un­likely to end well for the ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Speak­ing in front of a gradu­at­ing class of West Point ca­dets last month, the pres­id­ent an­nounced a shift away from full-on mil­it­ary con­front­a­tion and to­ward co­oper­a­tion with for­eign gov­ern­ments to com­bat ter­ror­ism world­wide. At the time, he poin­ted to proofs-of-concept in the Middle East and Africa: ar­range­ments to train op­pos­i­tion fight­ers in Syr­ia; to co­oper­ate with coun­terter­ror­ism forces in Afgh­anistan; and to build up elite troops in Libya, Ni­ger, Maur­it­ania, and Mali.

But in Ir­aq, the White House must find a way to im­ple­ment its part­ner­ship-fo­cused for­eign policy in the face of a rap­idly un­rav­el­ing situ­ation.

The Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia took a key cross­ing on the Ir­aqi-Syr­i­an bor­der on Sunday through which it can eas­ily ferry mil­it­ary sup­plies and re­in­force­ments between ter­rit­ory it con­trols in both coun­tries. Mean­while, IS­IS fight­ers draw near­er to Bagh­dad every day.

Obama an­nounced on Thursday that the U.S. will send up to 300 mil­it­ary ad­visers to Ir­aq to help stop the IS­IS ad­vance. Some of these ad­visers will set up “joint op­er­a­tion cen­ters” in Bagh­dad and north­ern Ir­aq to share in­tel­li­gence with Ir­aqi forces and co­ordin­ate plan­ning. But the pres­id­ent em­phas­ized that the move is lim­ited in scope and that Amer­ic­an troops would not get in­volved in com­bat. Ul­ti­mate re­spons­ib­il­ity, he said, lies with Ir­aq’s polit­ic­al lead­ers, who “must rise above their dif­fer­ences and come to­geth­er around a polit­ic­al plan for Ir­aq’s fu­ture.” Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry traveled to Ir­aq over the week­end to meet with some of these lead­ers.

The situ­ation in Ir­aq “un­der­scores the im­port­ance of the point that I made at my West Point speech: the need for us to have a more ro­bust re­gion­al ap­proach to part­ner­ing and train­ing,” said Obama earli­er this month.

In line with the pro­posed for­eign policy shift, the U.S. is part­ner­ing with Prime Min­is­ter Nuri Kamal al-Ma­liki and the Ir­aqi army to ad­dress the IS­IS threat. But Ma­liki and Ir­aqi forces are un­likely to be valu­able part­ners: Mil­it­ary ex­perts have de­term­ined that about a quarter of Ir­aq’s mil­it­ary is “com­bat in­ef­fect­ive,” and its lead­er­ship is rife with cor­rup­tion.

In his May speech, Obama said, “Today’s prin­cip­al threat no longer comes from a cent­ral­ized al-Qaida lead­er­ship. In­stead, it comes from de­cent­ral­ized al-Qaida af­fil­i­ates and ex­trem­ists, many with agen­das fo­cused in the coun­tries where they op­er­ate.” In the state­ment, Obama may have mis­read the fu­ture of ter­ror­ist threats. IS­IS was once an Qaida af­fil­i­ate, but al-Qaida cut ties with the group in Feb­ru­ary be­cause of its ex­tremely vi­ol­ent tac­tics. Now, IS­IS func­tions much more like the state it pur­ports to be than a “de­cent­ral­ized” ter­ror­ist group with loc­al in­terests. Its mil­it­ary strength, fund­ing, and or­gan­iz­a­tion have al­lowed it to best gov­ern­ment troops at every turn.

If the part­ner­ship between the U.S. and Ir­aqi forces sees some suc­cess, it could vin­dic­ate the for­eign policy pivot the pres­id­ent put for­ward last month. But if it fails to check the ad­vance of IS­IS troops and to help Ir­aq re­gain lost ter­rit­ory — and this is the more likely out­come, giv­en the cur­rent state of Ir­aq’s be­lea­guered mil­it­ary — the pres­id­ent’s fo­cus on dip­lomacy and col­lab­or­a­tion will likely look out of touch.

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