The Agenda

President Obama and the Unraveling of Iraq

Dexter Filkins’s dispatch on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki the state of Iraq makes for depressing reading, but it offers invaluable insight into President Obama’s approach to foreign policy.

For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” Jeffrey told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

The last American combat troops departed Iraq on December 18, 2011. Some U.S. officials believe that Maliki never intended to allow soldiers to remain; in a recent e-mail, he denied ever supporting such a plan, saying, “I am the owner of the idea of withdrawing the U.S. troops.” Many Iraqi and American officials are convinced that even a modest force would have been able to prevent chaos—not by fighting but by providing training, signals intelligence, and a symbolic presence. “If you had a few hundred here, not even a few thousand, they would be coöperating with you, and they would become your partners,” Askari told me. “But, when they left, all of them left. There’s no one to talk to about anything.”

Filkins quotes Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, who insists that having troops in Iraq “did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances.” But of course no one claims otherwise. Rather, the argument is that the presence of U.S. forces might have restrained Maliki, as it had in the past, a point made by Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, the deputy commander in Iraq until January 2011, who expresses anger at the Obama administration for having failed to push for an agreement that would have allowed for an ongoing U.S. presence and for leaving the U.S. with no leverage in Iraq. After devoting an enormous amount of blood and treasure to keep Iraq whole, the U.S. allowed Iran to dictate the shape of Iraq’s government, which remains in power: 

The U.S. obtained a transcript of the meeting, and knew the exact terms of the agreement. Yet it decided not to contest Iran’s interference. At a meeting of the National Security Council a month later, the White House signed off on the new regime. Officials who had spent much of the previous decade trying to secure American interests in the country were outraged. “We lost four thousand five hundred Americans only to let the Iranians dictate the outcome of the war? To result in strategic defeat?” the former American diplomat told me. [Expletive.] At least one U.S. diplomat in Baghdad resigned in protest. And Ayad Allawi, the secular Iraqi leader who captured the most votes, was deeply embittered. “I needed American support,” he told me last summer. “But they wanted to leave, and they handed the country to the Iranians. Iraq is a failed state now, an Iranian colony.” 

While conservatives focus on Benghazi, President Obama’s most egregious foreign policy decision has attracted very little attention. One assumes that this is because Republicans want to wash their hands of Iraq almost as much as Democrats do. But someone at some point will have to remember that there is more at stake than the outcome of the next election, and that when the United States makes a commitment, it is vitally important that we honor it. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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