No Drama Obama And Iraq

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 16 2014 @ 12:00pm

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While Iraq unravels, Lexington appreciates Obama’s temperament:

In and of itself, his cool, cerebral analysis is often more rational and less hypocritical than the criticism raining down on him from his political opponents. Republicans in Washington, knowing full well that voters have precisely no appetite for a return to Iraq, content themselves with accusing the president of allowing the world to fall apart and emboldening wicked men and dangerous foes through a lack of attention and “weakness”. By this they seem to mean that Mr Obama should stop saying that American force may not be capable of fixing the world. They do not mean that they actually want Mr Obama to do anything with American force.

Which merely goes to show there is only one grown-up in Washington these days, and we’re lucky he is in the White House. I was particularly impressed with the president’s insistence on continuing his California fundraising trip. What he’s doing by this business-as-usual approach is to try and defuse the Beltway’s cable-news-driven hysteria of the minute – usually larded up with insane levels of parochialism and partisanship – so that a saner foreign policy can be realized. Amy Davidson also sees Obama’s even keel:

It is not a simple matter, if it ever was, of the people we really like (and who like us) against the ones who don’t. (Try factoring in the role of ISIS in fighting the Assad regime, in Syria, and our possible shared interests with Iran in Iraq, and you’re left with a chalkboard of squiggly equations.) One question to emerge from our wars is our susceptibility to a certain sort of blackmail by regimes we support: without me, there is Al Qaeda and chaos. When Andrea Mitchell, of NBC, asked Senator John McCain, who had been railing against the Obama Administration’s decision to withdraw troops in Iraq, whether Maliki could really be persuaded to change his ways, McCain replied, “He has to, or he has to be changed.” How that would be accomplished was, as always in Iraq—a land we seem to associate with the granting of wishes—left unclear.

That “he has to be changed” remark tells you a lot. It comes from a very 20th Century mindset that saw the world as essentially a “garden to tend,” in David Brooks’ metaphor, and that views other countries as mere objects of American fire-power and will. It usually comes from an essentially benign place – McCain doesn’t want to unleash terror or mayhem or sectarian massacres – but that’s not often how it goes down (see “Shock and Awe” and Abu Ghraib). Davidson later quotes a segment of the president’s interview with David Remnick as a lens into his current thinking. Obama said:

You have a schism between Sunni and Shia throughout the region that is profound.

Some of it is directed or abetted by states who are in contests for power there. You have failed states that are just dysfunctional, and various warlords and thugs and criminals are trying to gain leverage or a foothold so that they can control resources, populations, territory… . And failed states, conflict, refugees, displacement—all that stuff has an impact on our long-term security. But how we approach those problems and the resources that we direct toward those problems is not going to be exactly the same as how we think about a transnational network of operatives who want to blow up the World Trade Center. We have to be able to distinguish between these problems analytically, so that we’re not using a pliers where we need a hammer, or we’re not using a battalion when what we should be doing is partnering with the local government to train their police force more effectively, improve their intelligence capacities.

Jonathan Alter notes that, with regards to this crisis, 2014 Obama is behaving a lot like the 2003 one:

[Obama’s] resistance to foreign adventurism helped propel him to the presidency and keep him there. It’s no coincidence that in a nation weary of war he was the first man elected twice with absolute majorities since Dwight D. Eisenhower more than half a century ago. … Amid the cable noise, it’s impossible to overstate just how little Obama cares about Republican criticism of his foreign policy. He is in no mood to hear I-told-you-so lectures from those who were on the wrong side of a war that has already led to the loss of 4,500 American lives and cost a trillion dollars, including $25 billion to bolster an Iraqi “army” hardly worthy of the name. It’s as if Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger were under attack in 1975 from Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy for not finishing the disastrous war the Democrats started.

Philip Klein doubts the public will blame Obama for the collapse of Iraq, noting that “most people viewed the disintegration of Iraq as inevitable, and they didn’t want to pay the price in blood and treasure in perpetuity, waiting endlessly for the creation of an Iraqi government that could stand on its own”:

CNN/ORC poll taken in December 2011, around the time of the U.S. withdrawal, found that Americans expected Iraq would get overrun by terrorists, but overwhelmingly supported withdrawal anyway.

Specifically, the pollsters offered a series of scenarios and asked if they were likely or unlikely to happen in the “the next few years.” The results: 54 percent said it was unlikely Iraq would “continue to have a democratic government that will not be overthrown by terrorists”; 60 percent said it was unlikely Iraqi security forces would “be able to ensure safety and security in Iraq without assistance from the United States” and 63 percent said it was unlikely Iraq would “be able to prevent terrorists from using the country as a base of operations for planning attacks against the United States.” Despite this pessimism, 78 percent of Americans in the same poll said they approved of the decision to withdraw. …

The only way this becomes a political problem for Obama is if he intervenes and things don’t improve or get dramatically worse. Which is likely another reason why he’s reluctant to get involved.

And the two presidents he most resembles in this are classic conservatives: Dwight Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush.

(Photo: Nicholas Kamm/Getty)