Welcome to the White House’s Nightmare

Already swamped by domestic and foreign crises, Obama finds that even his self-proclaimed successes are at risk. That’s just about the last thing he needs now.

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Iraq in the Brady Briefing room of the White House on June 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke about the deteriorating situation as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants move toward Baghdad after taking control over northern Iraqi cities. 
National Journal
James Oliphant
June 19, 2014, 10:56 a.m.

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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