An explosion of violence in Iraq risks turning the troubled country into a political liability for President Obama.
During last year's reelection campaign, the president managed to both earn credit for withdrawing all U.S. troops and avoid blame for the deteriorating security situation.
“By nearly every indicator, security conditions in Iraq have dramatically worsened over the past two years,” a bipartisan group of Senate leaders on national security issues wrote to Obama on Tuesday. “What's worse, the deteriorating conflict in Syria has enabled al Qaeda in Iraq to transform into the larger and more lethal Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which now has a major base for operations spanning both Iraq and Syria.”
The deteriorating security situation in Iraq is but one in a string of recent developments that have lawmakers worried about an erosion of U.S. influence in the Middle East under Obama. Other examples include the president's reluctance to play a greater role in the Syrian conflict or to forcefully denounce abuses under Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi — or his subsequent overthrow by the military.
“What we're seeing is a growing discomfort on the part of the Congress, which I think reflects a wider elite discomfort, with the Obama administration's hands-off approach to the Middle East,” said Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution. “Since the Obama administration has been in office, the Middle East has gotten worse, not better — and Iraq is just the salient example of that.”
Pollack said the violence is unlikely to hurt Democrats at the polls next year because most Americans have no appetite for a return to greater U.S. involvement in the Middle East, as evidenced by the widespread opposition to U.S. strikes against Syria. A return to full-fledged civil war in Iraq, despite the U.S. sacrifices there — or a terrorist attack on U.S. soil organized from there — could turn that around however, he said.
The Obama administration defended its approach, saying Iraq's security is the Iraqis' responsibility.
“Iraq has to resolve the challenges that face Iraq,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday.
He defended the decision to pull all U.S. troops out of the country at the end of 2011, after U.S. and Iraqi officials failed to agree on a deal to keep a residual force in the country.
“The decision to fully withdraw from Iraq was one made by the Iraqi government and the United States government,” Carney said. “And it was the right decision, because anyone who believes that the presence of U.S. troops ... in perpetuity is the answer to solving Iraq's political challenges, I think is just simply wrong.”
Al-Maliki's visit further exposed deep differences between the administration's circumscribed approach to the Iraqi violence and lawmakers' call for a broader reevaluation of U.S.-Iraqi relations.
The Iraqi prime minister was in town to personally lobby for more U.S. military hardware, notably attack helicopters, to fight insurgents. He appeared to have the administration's ear.
“We had a lot of discussion about how we can work together to push back against the terrorist organization that operates not only in Iraq but poses a threat to the entire region and to the United States,” Obama told reporters Friday after meeting al-Maliki at the White House.
A joint statement put out by the two countries after the meeting said that “both sides emphasized — on an urgent basis — the need for additional equipment for Iraqi forces.” Iraq also asked to buy more U.S. arms while confirming “its commitment to ensure strict compliance with U.S. laws and regulations on the use of such equipment.”
The deal will be a tough sell in Congress.
The signers of the Senate letter had asked Obama to take a tougher stance against al-Maliki, who they accuse of being in cahoots with Iran and of pursuing a "sectarian and authoritarian agenda." The statements from the White House after the meeting did not address their allegations that al-Maliki is allowing Iran to fly weapons to Assad through Iraqi airspace and that he had a hand in attacks that killed several dozen members of an Iranian dissident group living in Iraqi camps.
"Maliki's mismanagement of Iraqi politics is contributing to the recent surge of violence," the senators wrote. “We must see more evidence from Prime Minister Maliki that the U.S. security assistance and arms sales are part of a comprehensive Iraqi strategy that addresses the political sources of the current violence and seeks to bring lasting peace to the country.”