Obama Took His Eye Off the Ball in Iraq

People often forget the politics surrounding President Obama’s decision to withdraw troops from Iraq. It was 2011, when the Arab Spring was in full bloom, the killing of bin Laden was still in the news, and the death of deposed Libyan dictator Moammar Gadaffi was fresh in voters’ minds. In his mind own mind President Obama thought himself to be on a roll. What better time then to capitalize on the momentum by fulfilling his campaign promise to get out of Iraq? It didn’t hurt that Obama was desperate to zap some energy into his Democratic base.

Many also forget the reason for the White House’s compressed timeline. In short, the Obama Administration’s brazen declarations about the need to end the “war in Iraq” understandably angered the Iraqi government. The White House was only willing to commit to a post-draw down force of 3,000 to 5,000 troops, far below the 20,000 that military commanders had asked for, or the 10,000 that was deemed the absolute minimum by his defense advisors. The Iraqi government, who was fighting political headwinds at home, took the puny force as a sign that America wasn’t serious and promptly cut off talks.

Unfortunately, neither election-year politics nor questionable negotiating strategy ever proved to be an indicator of a sound foreign policy decision. Indeed, many Republicans urged the president to slow down and make sure we were acting wisely, not just swiftly.

“I remain concerned that this full withdrawal of US forces will make that road tougher than it needs to be,” Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, said. “Multiple experts have testified before my committee that the Iraqis still lack important capacities in their ability to maintain their internal stability and territorial integrity. These shortcomings could reverse the decade of hard work and sacrifice both countries have endured to build a free Iraq.”

McKeon’s warning seems to have borne out in the tragic actions of the last few days. The Washington Post reports:

Iraq was on the brink of disintegration Thursday as al-Qaeda-inspired fighters swept through northern Iraq toward Baghdad and Kurdish soldiers seized the city of Kirkuk without a fight.

Lawmakers gathered at the Iraqi parliament to discuss the declaration of a state of emergency, a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured Iraqis that the insurgents’ gains were temporary and would soon be reversed by the Iraqi army.

But after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured fresh territory and set its sights on Baghdad, Iraq seemed to be fast slipping out of government control.

In Washington, President Obama expressed concern about the situation and said Iraq is “going to need more help from us” and from the international community. He said his administration was trying to determine the most effective type of assistance.

During his comments President Obama seemed agitated, appearing to understand the dire impact ISIS’ move could have on the Middle East chessboard.

“I don’t rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” Obama told reporters.

The tone of Obama’s comments were in stark contrast to the celebratory one he adopted in last month’s speech before the graduating class of the U.S. Military Academy.

“Four and a half years later, as you graduate, the landscape has changed,” Obama said. “We have removed our troops from Iraq. We are winding down our war in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s leadership on the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been decimated.”

Even President Obama knows that his glowing view of Iraq was not true. As Dan Henninger of the Wall Street Journal writes:

One might ask: Didn’t U.S. intelligence know something like Mosul could happen? They did. The February 2014 “Threat Assessment” by the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency virtually predicted it: “AQI/ISIL [aka ISIS] probably will attempt to take territory in Iraq and Syria . . . as demonstrated recently in Ramadi and Fallujah.” AQI (al Qaeda in Iraq), the report says, is exploiting the weak security environment “since the departure of U.S. forces at the end of 2011.” But to have suggested any mitigating steps to this White House would have been pointless. It won’t listen.

That knowledge coupled with the lack of action led Speaker John Boehner to ask what President Obama has been doing for the last year.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen this problem coming for a year; it’s not like we haven’t seen over the last five or six month, these terrorists moving in, taking control of western Iraq,” the speaker said during his weekly press briefing. “Now, they’ve taken control of Mosul, they’re 100 miles from Baghdad, and what’s the president doing? Taking a nap.”

Either that or counting on the public being so fatigued with foreign engagement that they’ll forget how badly he miscalculated on the withdrawal of troops in 2011.