National Security & Defense

Why Obama’s Iraq Policy Is Collapsing

Iraqi Army soldiers in action south of Mosul, March 25, 2016. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

Iraq faces two major crises: its continuing war with Daesh (also known as ISIS) and the political situation in Baghdad. And while each poses serious challenges to U.S. national security, both are being neglected by President Obama.

On the Daesh threat, consider what the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, said yesterday. Asked by Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), “Would you do more if you could?”, Dunford paused, and then responded, “I would do more if I could but the limitation is not just a political limitation, part of it is our partners on the ground.” Of course, by stating that it was not just a political limitation, Dunford was admitting that the White House is part of the problem. And General Dunford’s discontent is understandable. As I noted recently, while Daesh is stretched on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, its global jihad retains great strategic momentum. Recognizing this threat, any sensible U.S. strategy would seek Daesh’s expedient extinction. Unfortunately, President Obama’s new roof-knocking tactic — warning Daesh before attacks — is just one indicator of his broader strategic impotence. His failure of leadership makes future Paris-style, or Brussels-style, or Istanbul-style, or Jakarta-style, or Sousse-style, or San Bernardino–style attacks far more likely.

Yet in many ways, the political crisis in Baghdad is even more concerning. That’s because its outcome will define whether the Iraqi state embraces durable stability or ends in cataclysmic failure. Infuriated by political cronyism and the government’s inability to improve services, Iraqis have lost faith in the system. The simple problem is that the majority of ministers in Baghdad’s various government ministries serve their parties first and their country second. But the most destructive problem is Iran’s campaign against Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Recognizing public anger, Abadi wants to reform the Baghdad ministerial portfolios so that skilled public servants, who report to him, replace political hacks who report to their party leaders. But the Iranians, realizing that Abadi’s reforms serve democratically accountable governance at their expense, are working to undercut and intimidate Abadi.

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Further complicating matters are the Kurds. Infuriated by Baghdad’s failures to transfer funds allocated to Kurdistan, and fearing that Abadi’s reforms will weaken Kurdistan’s regional autonomy, Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, is pushing aggressively for an independent sovereign Kurdish state and stealing territory from the central government.

On all these various fronts, Iran is working behind the scenes to ensure that it holds the cards however the crisis plays out. In contrast, our response to this high-stakes politicking is to deploy Joe Biden into photo ops. It’s the equivalent of throwing ice into a fire: Biden’s short visit will produce a plentitude of political steam, before its memory is consumed in the flames. The contrast between Iran’s message to Iraqi moderates — “We are here forever with resolve” — and our message – “We are here for a day and a grin” — is catastrophic.

#share#That said, Iraq’s political discord also offers opportunities that a better U.S. policy could utilize. Consider Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Once a clownish demagogue, then a powerful insurgent, then a failed insurgent, Sadr has found new clothes: those of a nationalist demagogue. And while Sadr has American blood on his hands, he is leading ongoing political protests to push Abadi toward reform. The moment Abadi became prime minister in August 2014, we should have started to play Iran at its own game. By aggressively conspiring against those who oppose effective Iraqi governance, and working with those (including people we despise) who are amenable to outcomes we desire, we could greatly improve the situation in Baghdad politics. To be sure, we’ve lost much influence since 2014, but balancing options remains real. Using a mixture of money, arms, and espionage against Iranian puppets, and providing help to Iraqi nationalists, we could secure compromises that would advance Iraq’s stability. As Michael Knights explained recently, Daesh’s desecration of Sunni communities and its hatred for Shiite Iraqis offer potential for new Sunni–Shia political compromises. But until Iraqis perceive their government as effective, the extremist fringes will continue to hold sway.

RELATED: The Costs of Abandoning Messy Wars

First, however, President Obama must alter his philosophical standpoint toward Iraq. More specifically, he must abandon his belief that a “hands off” approach to Iraq will force political compromises toward stability. The opposite is true. Iraq’s political center — the compromise realm — has been smashed by America’s effective absence from Iraq since 2011. Sadly, there’s another motivation at play here: President Obama’s legacy. After all, just as President Obama’s 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq was about subordinating national security to liberal ideology, his current Iraq delusions are fueled by personal motivations. Desperate to preserve his Iran nuclear-deal legacy project (as absurd as it is), President Obama fears that if he challenges Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei will break his soon-to-be library exhibit. Iran’s leaders know this and thus have no inclination to compromise. And so in Iraq, as in Syria, the Iranians mock American interests.

#related#Still, the potential for constructive U.S. influence in Iraq remains strong. The honor roll of American sons and daughters who died in Iraq helps explains why. That honor roll isn’t just a list for the nearly 5,000 American families who have lost loved ones in Iraq. It’s also a reminder to Iraqi politicians like Abadi, who seek compromise, that the U.S. has been their only reliable outside partner. Although it was little noted at the time, this legacy of sacrifice — and the associated reliability of U.S. diplomats and generals as political interlocutors — made Iraqi politicians accept U.S. guidance. We must remember what Private Michael Olivieri gave in 2011, what Major Ronald Culver gave in 2010, what Sergeant John Savage gave in 2008, what Specialist Byron Fouty gave in 2007, what Lance Corporal Rene Martinez gave in 2006, what Petty Officer Jeffery Wiener gave in 2005, what Corporal Bradley Arms gave in 2004, and what Sergeant Paul Smith gave in 2003, and use their patriotism to serve America — and Iraq — once again.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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