President Barack Obama entered office in 2009 with an undeniable mandate to bring about a swift but favorable conclusion to the Iraq War. But by the time the president entered office, combat operations in Iraq were already winding down.
By the middle of 2008, the “surge” strategy and a political offensive resulting in the “Anbar Awakening” had greatly reduced internecine violence. Iraq was on a path toward reconciliation and, it was hoped, stability and peace.
“The surge had undoubtedly met its stated aim of buying the time and space necessary for the Iraqi government to advance national reconciliation and, at least in theory, develop the capacity to provide adequate public services,” a 2011 article in Foreign Affairs magazine by reporter Emma Sky read.
As I prepared to depart Iraq in August 2010, it was clear that the close partnership between the U.S. military and the ISF had paid dividends. Accompanying [Gen. Raymond] Odierno as he toured the country to review the progress, I witnessed U.S. and ISF soldiers celebrating each time the United States transferred one of its bases to Iraqi forces, conducting ceremonies in which U.S. commanders symbolically delivered the keys to their Iraqi counterparts. The strong individual and institutional relationships between the two forces contributed to a growing sense of security across the country.
That is not to say that the insurgency in Iraq had been entirely put down by 2009, or that the Bush administration bequeathed Obama an Iraq that was politically stable. The president had his work cut out for him in Iraq, but even those predisposed to be skeptical of the idea that Iraq could ever become a model state were forced to concede gains had been made.
By the summer of 2010, The New York Times, which long ago allowed the tone of the editorial page to color its supposedly neutral coverage of the Iraq War, was quoting even Iraq War skeptics who sounded notes of optimism. Framed as an iconoclastic voice of skepticism within the military establishment, Col. Alan Baldwin, a former Marine intelligence officer who warned before the invasion of Iraq that the United States would likely set off a civil war, marveled at America’s perseverance in pursuit of a stable Iraq.
“We opened a Pandora’s box,” Baldwin told Times reporter Peter Baker. “Lots of bad things were flying out of there. But good things are there now too. It’s amazing we had the patience to be where we are today.”
It was not America’s patience, but the patience of its political establishment that deserved the credit. The American public would have long ago abandoned Iraq to its own murderous devices had the political will existed in Washington to invite that kind of calamity. Sobriety and foresight guided Washington’s approach to the situation in Iraq, but only just long enough to provide Obama with the space he needed to desert Iraq entirely.
Today, that country is a failed state. The Islamic State militants who swept across the border from Syria occupy one third of the nation, a government in turmoil in the midst of an effort to oust a divisive prime minister controls another third, and the Kurdish proto-state governs the remainder. This condition was all but unthinkable when the last American troops boarded the final C-130 out of Iraq.
Iraq is not the first of Obama’s predecessors’ foreign policy accomplishments which he has undone.
When Richard Nixon took office in 1969, the geopolitical landscape in East Asia presented not merely challenges but opportunities as well. The Sino-Soviet split evolved in the later part of that decade from an ideological dispute between Beijing and Moscow into a military challenge. In March of 1969, a series of border skirmishes between the Red and People’s Liberation Armies resulted in heavy casualties. By October of that year, the two Communist poles were on the brink of war.
It was a master stroke for the Nixon administration to leverage this split in the Communist world to the United States’ advantage. The “opening” of China, culminating in Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, put the Soviets on the defensive and made Nixon into a national hero. Just imagine what it would take today for two chambers of Congress controlled by Democrats to offer a sitting Republican president a standing ovation in the summer of a presidential election year. U.S. intervention into the Sino-Soviet clash, and it was an intervention albeit a diplomatic one, froze that conflict in place until the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
The Russian Federation normalized relations with China and it was under Obama’s predecessor that the two countries again embarked on a path of military cooperation (what have now become regular joint military exercises between the two powers were first held in 2005 and 2007). It was, however, Obama’s presidency which saw this relationship evolve from a cooperative alliance of convenience into an anti-American bloc aimed at overturning the geopolitical status quo.
Russia, a revanchist power which aims to restore some measure of its Soviet-era regional hegemony, has been able to rely on China to offset any of the repercussions the West has imposed as a result of Moscow’s invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine.
A bilateral energy deal which Russia and China signed in June has been described as a “geopolitical tectonic shift.” Similarly, China has offered to help replace many of the imported Western food products that have been banned as the result of a volley of tit-for-tat sanctions. “Some believe that a China-Russia axis is now emerging and could eventually propose an alternative towards a multi-polar world order,” Al Jazeera reported in June.
This was not the only accomplishment of the Nixon administration that Obama unraveled. Just over 40 years ago, the Soviet client state of Egypt threw out the Russian military advisors which had supported that country since Gamal Nasser. The Nixon administration cemented Egypt’s new fealty to the United States when it mediated an end to the 1973 Yom Kippur War in a fashion that did not humiliate Cairo. Nixon’s successor, Jimmy Carter, and his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, solidified the relationship between the U.S. and the Egyptian army during the Camp David Accord negotiations.
The Arab Spring upended all of that when the Egyptian military lost control of the government to the Muslim Brotherhood. In what the U.S. reluctantly deemed a coup, the military reasserted control over the state when they overthrew the deeply unpopular Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013. Bilateral relations with Egypt were severely damaged when the Obama administration cut off some aid to Cairo as a result of this putsch.
“Since then the U.S. has done little to mend fences with the military and demonstrated little understanding of the fact that Egypt had become a zero-sum game in which the only choices were the Brotherhood or the military,” Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin wrote in December. “With the administration announcing a partial aid cutoff to the new government, what followed next was entirely predictable. Cairo turned to Moscow for help and for the first time since 1973 Russia has a foothold in the Arab world’s most populous nation as well as the one that, with the Suez Canal, holds its most strategic position.”
On Tuesday, the Russian news source RIA Novosti announced triumphantly that Russia had finally reversed the embarrassment meted out by Anwar Sadat, and there would again be military cooperation between these two states. Russian President Vladimir Putin also revealed that the two countries are investigating the potential to create a free trade zone.
These are just a few of the most egregious examples of how the Obama administration has squandered the legacy achievements of his predecessors. With more than two years of the Obama presidency to go, he may secure for himself even more dubious accomplishments.