This week, we experience the deep, jarring irony of the President from Chicago whose entire career was built on a politically prescient position against the Iraq War, whose biggest foreign policy “success” was pulling American troops out of a relatively stable Iraq to satisfy a political promise, leaving behind the political implosion and brutality of today, reinitiating war in Iraq. President Barack Obama restarting a war in Iraq. It is truly remarkable.
But to what end? I think it’s the right move to offer humanitarian assistance to innocents cornered and strategic military assistance against ISIS in Iraq. Much like the post-invasion Iraq left by the predecessor Obama has tried so hard not to be, a lack of strategic foresight about post-withdrawal Iraq left behind a power vacuum that had horrible consequences for the country and its people. We knew seven months ago, when Anbar fell, that ISIS was filling it and efficiently rolling back gains by Americans and the Iraqi Army alike.
The best time and way to act in Iraq (post Bush-era mistakes, which I am not denying) would have been to preserve those gains by getting a Status of Forces Agreement and leaving some troops in a relatively stable country to guide Iraqi troops and maintain influence on the increasingly problematic Maliki. The next best time to act would have been any of the time between ISIS’ debut and now, when rolling back its gains would have been easier. But here we are, and I fear that what President Obama has planned won’t be enough to stop these varsity jihadists with huge ambitions. Further, I’m afraid that neither the American people nor the American president are interested in what might actually derail ISIS in a meaningful way. In which case, does our current military action actually end up achieving anything?
The troops that were in Iraq before Obama withdrew them were easier to explain as Bush’s doing. Since they were in so much less danger (relatively speaking, of course) than troops of the 2006 Iraq era, Americans would have tolerated their being in Iraq as a bulwark against what has now happened. Re-exerting force, re-inserting troops is a much more politically painful maneuver for Obama than simply leaving them in place would have been.
Yet, it turns out, that’s what’s required, even in the estimation of Obama, who is so politically and ideologically disinclined to use American force in just this way. But re-exerting force also requires re-convincing the American people that this is worth it. That requires more skill than simply begging a bit more of their patience would have in 2011. And, it’s a skill the president has never shown he has. Even when a cause is near and dear to his heart, as with Obamacare, he has shown no ability to plan and wage a long plan to make it work or a long campaign to convince people of its worth. His three-week-long flirtation with military action in Syria is perhaps a closer analogue. That was Obama’s stab at convincing the American people and Congress that military action is necessary and just. There was barely even an attempt made.
Do we think he will make such an attempt for Iraq? And, if he cannot muster it, it is virtually sure that the understandably war-weary American people will not get on board. Without those things, can any military action actually succeed? That has been my fear about this situation since troops left. With them there, perhaps Iraq’s future could subsist on the dedication of America’s troops, the remnants of the impassioned argument President Bush made for their presence, and the real gains the combination had shown the Iraqi people. Now, we’ve lost two of the three, and I do not expect Obama to be filling the void with his moral clarity and passion for this engagement. For all of Bush’s faults and mistakes, and there were plenty of costly ones in the theater of Iraq that I do not wish to diminish, he had the courtesy to make an argument. That’s part of taking seriously the deployment of troops and putting them in harm’s way. It’s times like this that a Commander in Chief who leads is helpful. Leaders have the ability to change minds, to convince Americans that their sacrifices are necessary. Is there any evidence that Obama can become that man?
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