Obama faces blurred lines in Iraq

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President Obama may know who his friends are, but spotting his enemies is growing harder by the day.

The evolving crisis in Iraq has highlighted the tangled knot of Middle East politics for the White House, which is struggling to chart out a foreign policy course in a region where trouble looms on all sides.

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The situation stands in stark contrast to the days when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq with a heavy hand, or when the Taliban and al Qaeda were targeted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Today, in Iraq and in other trouble spots like Syria and Russia and the Ukraine, the picture is muddier, vexing both the Obama administration and critics who are offering up conflicting policy prescriptions.

“I think the world is a far more complicated place than it was in the post-Cold War era,” American University professor and foreign affairs expert Guy Ziv said. “For example, just monitoring the evolution of radical Islamists requires almost observing the situation on a day-to-day basis.”

Ziv added, “This is a much messier world in terms of the battle against extremism. Unfortunately, the sectarian strife and the religious element has become much more potent than it was in the past.”

Those dynamics are playing out, with potentially disastrous effects, in Iraq.

The U.S. has one clear-cut enemy in the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS.) But the administration’s strategy against the group is circumscribed by political realities, a war-weary public and the fact that Washington’s distaste for ISIS goes hand-in-hand with frustration at Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki — the very leader ISIS hopes to topple.

In recent days, the Obama administration has made clear the extent to which its patience has worn thin with Maliki, all the while issuing formal denials that it has another bout of regime change — albeit of the peaceful variety — on its mind.

Obama said at a White House news conference last week that “it’s not the place for the United States to choose Iraq’s leaders” only to immediately add: “It is clear, though, that only leaders that can govern with an inclusive agenda are going to be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together.”

Prominent figures on the domestic scene, including Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), have stated explicitly that Maliki’s removal is a prerequisite for a more stable Iraq. Media reports have suggested that the US ambassador in Baghdad, Robert Beecroft, and a State Department envoy, Brett McGurk, are already casting around for alternatives to the prime minister.

The problem, in Washington’s eyes, is that the Shia-led government headed by Maliki has alienated the Sunni minority in Iraq, a development which has made even moderate Sunnis who don’t share ISIS’s fundamentalist views disinclined to stop its advances. 

That has left the US threading several needles simultaneously: peel off the moderate Sunnis, while seeking a Shia leader more acceptable than Maliki; avoid simply flipping the situation and alienating the Shiite majority; and manage a loose alliance with Iran, which is majority Shia, without strengthening its regime.

Tehran shares the US’s distaste for Sunni extremism as exemplified by ISIS. Obama has said that Iran could play “a constructive role” if it sings from the same song-sheet as Washington by emphasizing the importance of inclusiveness. 

“It’s not like we are going to become allies with Iran but sometimes you have partially-shared interests and you can pursue them in parallel,” said Bruce Jentleson, a Duke University professor and a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Centre in Washington.

Many of Obama’s conservative critics don’t see it that way. 

“Just because Iran fears the ISIS jihadists, it does not follow that we should partner with them in this fight,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said last week. “The enemy of our enemy, in this instance, is not our friend.”

Cruz was among a number of Republicans who criticized Obama in strident terms last week. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) accused the president of “fiddling while Iraq burns.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said that Obama’s “attitude has left America weaker.”

Yet Republicans who favor more muscular action must also grapple with the fact that opinion polls suggest the public is not with them. An IPSOS/Reuters poll released late last week indicated that 55 percent of Americans were opposed to any further intervention in Iraq, while just 20 percent were supportive.

The libertarian wing of the GOP, personified by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is betting that their argument for avoiding foreign entanglements will resonate with the public.

“To attempt to transform Iraq into something more amenable to our interests would likely require another decade of U.S. presence and perhaps another 4,000 American lives — a generational commitment that few Americans would be willing to make,” Paul wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed published on Friday.

It’s not just the Republican Party that is being roiled by the situation in Iraq.

The crisis has created distance among Democrats, too. Last week, the reliably liberal Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C) declared, “I am a great believer in drones, and I think that this situation cries out for it” while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a more centrist figure, demurred..

“If money or military might would change that part of the world … we would have done it by now,” Manchin told CNN. “Enough is enough.”

Foreign policy experts admit to uncertainty when they contemplate one central dilemma: U.S. influence on the situation in Iraq is limited, yet it cannot afford to turn away entirely from the country’s problems.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is often characterized as a conservative voice on foreign affairs, but accepts the broad outlook advanced by Obama. A strategy in which United States takes a long-term view and allows other regional powers to exert their influence is “the right paradigmatic approach,” he said.

But, he added, “is the situation in Iraq so dire that we will regret not taking more forceful action? I don’t know.”

“Large-scale military intervention isn’t the answer,” concurred Guy Ziv. “But nor is retreat the answer.”