National Security & Defense

Obama’s Never-Ending Middle East Blame Game

Iraqi Army soldiers in Anbar Province in April. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty)

No American president has been as persistent as Barack Obama in blaming others for problems of his own making. Now in the seventh year of his presidency, Obama is still shifting blame for current crises to George W. Bush. When asked whether President Obama bore responsibility for the latest ISIS gains in Iraq, White House press secretary Josh Earnest replied that al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch “didn’t exist until the United States had invaded Iraq in the first place, under the leadership of the previous administration.”

Bush was not the only scapegoat in this instance. Earnest explained that ISIS sprang from al-Qaeda’s remnants and that “the primary responsibility for that actually lies at the feet of Prime Minister Maliki, who failed to govern Iraq in an inclusive way.” Earnest asserted that President Obama believed Iraqis had to “take responsibility for their own country.” During his speech at the Pentagon on Monday, Obama reiterated that rooting out ISIS on the ground was the responsibility of “local forces.”

The shifting of blame for Iraq has adverse consequences that go beyond obfuscation of the president’s culpability. When announcing the deployment of another 450 American troops to Iraq last month, administration spokesmen explained that the troops would only train Iraqis, not help Iraqis fight, because fighting ISIS was Iraq’s responsibility, not America’s. The problem in Iraq, they said, was a lack of will to fight, and American troops could not alter Iraqi will. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Iraqis did not need American advisers for spine-stiffening purposes because “if their spine is not stiffened by the threat of ISIL on their way of life, nothing we do is going to stiffen their spine.”

It is doubtful that administration leaders really believe that the presence of American troops in the field will not embolden Iraqis. The backing of American air power, which requires the presence of Americans in the field to be effective, will stiffen anyone’s spine. Past purges of the Iraqi officer corps have left Iraqi units bereft of seasoned commanders, a problem that American officers could help rectify as combat advisers.

The administration’s coupling of restrictions on U.S. troops with denials of American responsibility for Iraq give reason to believe that the White House’s self-serving Iraq narrative, in which Bush and Maliki are the villains, is driving policy. The Iraqis got themselves into the current mess, say the Pennsylvania Avenue spin doctors, and hence they must get themselves out. If Iraq continues to get worse, the absence of American combat participation will make it easier to heap further blame on the Iraqis.

Maliki and other Iraqi leaders are far from blameless. But the idea that Obama had no hand in Iraq’s meltdown is as implausible as Hillary Clinton’s protestations about her private e-mail server. When Obama took office, al-Qaeda in Iraq was a minor nuisance, thanks to a war that had cost 35,000 American casualties. The Iraqi government held sway over most of the country, and its diverse groups were resolving differences through a democratic political process that had the potential to become a role model for other Muslim nations. While Americans might have faulted Bush for getting the United States into Iraq in the first place, they expected the new president to protect America’s hard-won gains.

Obama inherited the power to restrain the sectarian impulses of President Maliki. Under Bush, U.S. military commanders had compelled Maliki to include Sunnis in the government and purge sectarian Shiites from the police. When Obama took over, however, he shifted authority from the Defense Department to Hillary Clinton’s State Department and to his Iraq pointman, Joe Biden. Soon thereafter, when Maliki began removing Sunni officers from the security forces, Obama’s representatives let him get away with it.

The Obama administration did at times exert restraining influence on Maliki while the United States still had 50,000 troops in Iraq. When Maliki tried to disqualify Sunni candidates in the 2010 parliamentary elections, U.S. pressure compelled him to reinstate the candidates.

In the aftermath of those elections, neither Maliki’s Dawa party nor the rival Iraqiya party could garner a parliamentary majority. Obama could have ensured that someone other than Maliki became prime minister, a course of action recommended by CENTCOM commander General James Mattis, who deemed Maliki too sectarian and pro-Iranian. Instead, Obama threw America’s weight behind Maliki on the advice of Biden, who believed Maliki to be less sectarian and less beholden to Iran than critics claimed.

Iraqis put enormous stock in the character of a nation’s leaders. By now they have realized that President Obama lacks the will and the moral authority to change the course of events in Iraq.

In 2011, Biden contended that the United States should keep only a light military footprint in Iraq from 2012 onward, relying on 16,000 contractors and civilian government employees to fill the void left by troop reductions. Obama, because of his own aversion to military deployments as well as public-opinion polls showing a lack of interest in Iraq, eventually decided that no U.S. troops were needed after 2011. He later attempted to deflect criticism of this decision by claiming that the Iraqi parliament had forced his hand by refusing to approve a U.S. military presence or a grant of immunity to U.S. troops. Yet in the summer of 2014, when Obama wanted American troops in Iraq, he sent them without obtaining a parliamentary invitation or grant of immunity.

In announcing the withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011, administration officials assured the American people that Iraq no longer needed U.S. troops. “The “sectarian fuse,” asserted Tony Blinken, Biden’s national-security adviser, was “unlikely or less likely, certainly, to be lit again.” According to one senior official, the administration had concluded that “achieving the goal of a security partnership with Iraq was not dependent on the size of our footprint in the country, and that stability in Iraq did not depend on the presence of U.S. forces.”

That conclusion was discredited just one day after the last American soldiers left, when Maliki issued arrest warrants for hundreds of Sunni politicians, including his own vice president. Arrests and purges of Sunnis within the government continued in the ensuing months. The Obama administration stayed mum, preferring to stick with the narrative of a successful extrication from Iraq.

The administration’s hopes that a large civilian presence could fill the shoes of the U.S. military presence also went up in smoke. The withdrawal of U.S. military forces left the security of U.S. diplomats and CIA officers subject to the whims of Maliki, who chose to keep the Americans confined to their bases. The resultant loss of American assistance to Iraq’s security apparatus, together with Maliki’s ongoing purges of Sunni officers, paved the way for the rise of ISIS.

In the summer of 2014, stunning ISIS advances compelled Obama to reintroduce U.S. troops into Iraq. But he sent them in such small numbers and with such restrictions on their activities that they could not prevent ISIS from conquering Anbar province. Had Obama authorized American troops to accompany Iraqi forces and direct air strikes, he would at the least have helped stiffen the spines of Iraqis. He might have saved Ramadi.

Now that Ramadi has fallen and ISIS has destroyed or co-opted its tribes, few of Iraq’s Sunnis are likely to help a Baghdad government widely seen as more friendly to Iranians than to Sunni Iraqis. Nor will many Sunnis join hands with a United States that abandoned them to the Baghdad government in Obama’s first term and provided wholly inadequate assistance in Obama’s second. Securing Ramadi will now be far harder.

To defeat ISIS, the administration will have to send a much larger number of U.S. troops to Iraq, and it will have to allow them to accompany Iraqi forces into battle. Only in this manner can the United States restore Sunni confidence, reduce Iranian influence, and rebuild Iraq’s security forces. As Obama made clear again in his Pentagon address, he has no intention of moving in this direction.

Iraqis put enormous stock in the character of a nation’s leaders. By now they have realized that President Obama lacks the will and the moral authority to change the course of events in Iraq. Given the president’s shortcomings and the amount of time now required to repair Iraq, perhaps he is right to muddle through to the end of his term. The task of rallying Sunnis against ISIS is a job best left to someone whose competence and resolve inspire America’s friends and frighten its enemies.

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