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Anbar province, the region of Iraq that 1,300 American soldiers died pacifying, is at risk of being taken over by al Qaeda jihadists and their affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Fighting between Iraqi government forces and the jihadists is currently going on in Ramadi and Fallujah, the latter city the site in 2004 of the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War. If the Iraqi government fails to retake the city and push back against the jihadist “al Qaedastan” fiefdom now forming in eastern Iraq and western Syria, the American hard-fought victory in Fallujah will be the emblem of how once again an incompetent administration snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, with repercussions for the whole region.
The debacle in Iraq, of course, has many causes. The dysfunctions of tribal cultures and Islam’s theology of violence––papered over by a national identity imposed from without and indifferent to the religious, regional, ethnic, and tribal fault lines of the region––ensured that absent a ruthless strongman to keep order, violence would explode between sectarian and tribal rivals. For the same reasons, the misguided American attempt to create liberal democracy in a country and culture with few of the preconditions for it was doomed to fail, and as a result sour the American people on any more involvement in a region of indiscriminate violence and ingratitude towards those who had liberated the Iraqi people from a psychopath like Hussein.
Yet despite all that, in 2011 Iraq still had a chance to establish some sort of ordered government, as long as enough American forces were on hand to help keep order and impose mind-concentrating violence upon those who disrupted it, and to prod Prime Minister Maliki to govern like the leader of a nation rather than as the chief of a sectarian gang. And here is where the blame lands on Obama, for failing to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government that would have left 10,000-15,000 American troops in the country, and then pulling all U.S. forces out of the country in December 2011. Eager for the political advantage that accrued to claiming he “ended” the war and “brought the boys home,” Obama did not put Maliki’s feet to the fire and get the agreement. Nor did he show leadership and explain to the American people that despite their war-weariness, the 8 years of sacrifice would be wasted if that investment in blood and resources was not protected by continued American involvement. This failure created a vacuum in which foreign jihadists and revanchist Shiites ignited a firestorm of suicide bombings, massacres, and now the full-scale operations in Anbar.
The fallout of the failure in Iraq, however, has serious consequences beyond that country. It is emblematic of the region-wide bungling and inconsistency that have plagued this administration and its criminally mediocre Secretaries of State. From his first day in office, Obama projected to the world doubt about America’s goodness, guilt over its alleged historical crimes, and eagerness to sit down with any thug and dictator who made a pretense of diplomatic engagement and help him “embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect,” as he announced at the U.N.
His actions have been equally inept, based as they have been on his calculation of political advantage, and his reflexive blame-America internationalism. Having campaigned on the claim that Iraq was a “dumb” war of choice, while Afghanistan was the “good” war, he was compelled to send a “surge” of troops to that country in 2009, only to undercut that effort by announcing a date-certain withdrawal after 2014. In 2011 he “lead from behind” as NATO forces exceeded their U.N. mandate and overthrew Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, leaving behind a failed state teeming with jihadist outfits, several of which in 2012 cooperated in murdering with impunity a U.S. ambassador and 3 other Americans in Benghazi. In 2011 he helped push out Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, and threw U.S. support behind the genocidal Muslim Brotherhood. Once they bungled the country into another revolution, Obama continued to plump for the Brothers, his Secretary of State John Kerry hectoring the military regime about killing terrorists, and scolding them about “the need for an inclusive political process across the political spectrum,” diplo-babble designed to cover up the disaster brought about by supporting terrorists worse than the deposed Mubarak, and then seeing the Egyptian people turn on them and the U.S.
And don’t forget the vanishing “red lines” in Syria and failure to act decisively when American support had a chance to topple Bashar al Assad without arming the fanatic jihadists now running the resistance. Or the showpiece of his ineptitude, the unrequited courtship of Iran, and the farcical on-going discussions aimed at talks to set further meetings to discuss getting Iran to promise to slow down its enrichment of uranium. Meanwhile John Kerry is hiding behind the Arab-Israeli “peace process” that has evolved into a diplomatic form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a repetition of actions that have no purpose other than their performance. This futile “peace-processing,” John Bolton points out, “incurs what economists call ‘opportunity costs”––namely, the lost opportunity to concentrate on other issues of greater importance or where there are better chances for progress.”
Indeed, America under Obama has become a minor player in the Middle East, incapable of protecting its interests. Afghanistan promises to go the way of Iraq, slipping back under the baleful influence of the Taliban after we leave. The Benghazi murders are still unpunished, or even honestly explained, tarnishing our prestige and suggesting that killing Americans has no price. Al Qaeda and its affiliated jihadists are rampaging through the region from Mali to Yemen, and taking the lead in the war against Bashar al Assad. And Iran continues to spin the centrifuges as speedily as it spins our terminally incompetent negotiator Wendy Sherman, who earned her position by negotiating North Korea’s Kim Jong Il––whom she once said “appears ready to make landmark commitments”––into a nuclear bomb.
The failure in Iraq, however, at this point is much more serious than these others blunders. The country itself is one of the largest in the Middle East, with a population of 32 million. It possesses the world’s fifth largest oil reserves. It has a majority Shiite population, making it a natural ally of neighboring Iran, and a potential supporter of that country’s regional hegemonic ambitions. Iraq is the test case of what an American commitment of lives and money can––or in this case, can’t–– achieve at a cost of $1 trillion, 4500 dead, and another 32,000 wounded.
If the U.S., after spending so much money and lives, fails to ensure that a country so geographically and economically important remains a viable state and a supporter of our foreign policy aims, then the possibility that we can influence the region and protect our own interests and security becomes more and more remote. That failure will confirm most dramatically the decline of our prestige, and the retreat of American power already evident throughout the region, as once-major allies like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel are pursuing strategies and alliances that do not depend or our reliability, while countries hostile to our interests, particularly Iraq and Russia, are already increasing their presence in the region. For that outcome Barack Obama will have to shoulder much of the blame.
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