There was in the President’s State of the Union address a tacit admission that his Mideast policies had failed. It was the following:
While we have put al-Qaeda’s core leadership on a path to defeat, the threat has evolved, as al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremists take root in different parts of the world. In Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, and Mali, we have to keep working with partners to disrupt and disable those networks.
When President Obama took office, al-Qaeda in Iraq had largely been defeated. Certainly they did not control large sections of territory. Iraq had a newly elected democratic government, one which represented, however imperfectly, the major ethnic and religious factions in that country. There was a chance to develop a working relationship with Iraq that would have stabilized that government and offered immense advantages to the United States. Certainty is not possible in foreign policy, but America would have been in a strong position to contain Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, influence the emerging “Arab spring” in a constructive direction, and assist the democratic opposition in Syria while preventing the Iranian and Russian intervention that has sustained Bashir Assad.
Instead the Obama administration fumbled away the opportunity by failing to negotiate a status of forces agreement with the Iraqi government that would have permitted American troops to remain in Iraq in a noncombat role. I elaborate on that failure here. Now, Iraq’s government has drifted into the orbit of Iran, the death toll in Syria has mounted, and the civil war there has engendered conflict between Shiites and Sunnis (radicalized on both sides) that is threatening to engulf the region. America has been reduced to hoping that the Russians will get rid of Assad, who is their ally, and that the Iranians will keep an agreement to stop building nuclear weapons that is inadequate on its face. And not only is al-Qaeda back in Iraq; they are retaking cities in Anbar province. The United States has put troops in Jordan, ostensibly to assist in breaking down chemical weapons from Syria; we must now hope that those troops, and more, are not needed to stabilize Jordan if the unrest spreads.