He has a reputation as “Mr. Cool,” but the president has proved himself to be surprisingly hot at presiding over the takedown of brutal strongmen. Now, as he announces the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq and as policy experts debate the degree to which the president’s decisions contributed to the success of the Libyan uprising, my question is: Has the president forgotten to whom he owes much of the credit for the success of the strategies he’s pursued abroad? Certainly, Barack Obama and his entire administration never forget to whom they owe the down economy, whatever Vice President Joe Biden might say to the contrary.
When it comes to foreign policy, the president has resembled George W. Bush far more than he promised he would. Yes, he opened his foreign policy with a grand apology tour and, yes, he most recently offered to apologize to the Japanese for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Neither of those even slightly resemble Bush. He also “led from behind” in rather un-Bush-like fashion when it came to Libya.
But let’s review a few of his other policies: He continued the surge in Afghanistan; he didn’t close Gitmo despite his campaign promise to do so; he recognized the wisdom of military tribunals; he has utilized drones in Pakistan; and he kept the troops in Iraq far longer than he said he would. That all sounds like G.W., if you ask me.
What exactly led to the capture and kill of Osama bin Laden or to the success of the mission in Libya or to any other of the president’s foreign policy successes can’t be credited to any one person — but the president should at least acknowledge his predecessor had it right on a number of issues.
Which brings us to the president’s decision to withdraw the troops from Iraq. Obama has never exactly been a humble guy, but my guess is he wouldn’t make this particularly consequential decision if he weren’t feeling especially cocky about his overall success on the foreign policy front. He thinks he has the political capital to do this — but he doesn’t. What’s made the American people trust Obama on foreign policy hasn’t been any decision in line with the Obama doctrine of apology. What’s made the American people trust Obama on foreign policy is that we’ve seen he’s wise enough to change his mind about key Bush policies.
Withdrawing the troops now betrays a certain naivete on Obama’s part — a certain optimistic belief that the American people think he knows best about these issues. But, as much as we all want to see the troops come home, none of us want to see the United States’ ability to defend its interests abroad weakened. This decision will do just that. The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano explains:
Rather than a symbol of success, the withdrawal of U.S. troops seems more like the outcome of an Administration in retreat.
With Syria in turmoil, Iran on the march, a more isolated Israel, and Turkey’s ever-more ambivalent policies, now is the worst time to see a diminished U.S. influence in ensuring continued progress in Iraq. A total troop pullout will leave Iraqi security forces much more vulnerable to terrorism, sectarian conflict, and Iranian meddling, and it will leave them much less capable of battling al-Qaeda in Iraq and pro-Iranian shia militias.
In part, Obama and his Obama Doctrine are to blame for the Iraqi government walking away from U.S. support—though it knows this premature decision makes the future of the country’s peace and prosperity risky business. The Obama Administration’s clear preference to disengage from Iraq as quickly as possible has made it more difficult to negotiate with Baghdad from a position of strength. Iraqi leaders, sensing the Obama Administration’s eagerness to head for the exit, are reluctant to take political risks to give U.S. troops immunity from prosecution.This was a deal-breaker.
Now the Obama Administration’s policy for the Middle East is moving from leading from behind to watching from the sidelines.
Has the president gotten cocky? Obviously. But it has ever been true and ever will be true that pride goes before a fall.
Update: This post originally mistakenly stated in one spot that Obama planned to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan rather than Iraq. It has been corrected above.