Obama’s legacy in Iraq

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When Barack Obama leaves the White House on Jan. 20, he will have both ended and launched a war in Iraq. Critics of his Iraq policy have blamed the country’s slide toward political repression and internecine war after 2011 on the headlong rush to withdraw combat troops from Iraq beginning in 2009, while ignoring the ramifications of such action on Iraq’s fragile democracy. Yet, this narrative glosses over the president’s deeper legacy in Iraq: a story of domestic political pressure, obstinate partners in Baghdad, and missed opportunities to exert influence through non-military means.

In a speech at Camp Lejeune in early 2009, President Obama outlined how he planned to end the U.S. military commitment to Iraq – stressing his administration would “not let the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals.” After December 2011, he predicted, it would be up to the Iraqis to secure their own future. His message resonated with the majority of Americans weary of continued troop commitment after six years of occupation and high U.S. casualties. When Obama took office, over 49 percent of Americans wanted to end the U.S. military presence there as soon as possible. By October 2011, two months before the last soldier would depart Iraq, three quarters of Americans approved of Obama’s withdrawal plan.

{mosads}Popular sentiment firmly supported Obama’s decision – as did, it seemed, a fundamental desire to compensate for the previous Bush administration’s mistakes. In the midst of the 2008 recession, American voters’ attention had moved away from Iraq. When the last soldier left the country in December 2011, only one percent of Americans viewed Iraq as a serious issue.

Critics of the 2011 withdrawal often forget that the president’s timeline, while fueled by the American people’s desire to put Iraq in the past, was in fact already determined by the Status of Forces Agreement set by the Bush administration in 2008. Then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki described the deal thus: “The incomplete sovereignty and presence of foreign troops are the most dangerous, most complicated, and most burdensome legacy we have faced since the time of dictatorship. Iraq should get rid of them to protect its young democratic experiment.”

In 2009, Obama hoped to amend the Status of Forces Agreement to leave a residual U.S. presence to assist Iraqi forces. Maliki, however, refused to grant these soldiers immunity from prosecution. For many observers, this outcome seemed to politically suit the White House. In December 2011, State Department lawyers concluded that without approval from the Iraqi Parliament, American soldiers could not stay in the country. Maliki’s obstinancy aided his sectarian agenda that favored Shia communities. The leverage that the military presence afforded U.S. diplomats weakened, leaving Maliki increasingly unchecked. He reinforced his grip on the Iraqi military’s Special Forces, turning them into a private militia used to intimidate dissenters and ensure loyalty from the intelligence and judicial services. 

In 2013, anger and discontent among Sunni populations sparked nationwide – and peaceful – protests against Maliki’s policies in 2013. Rather than take advantage of this opportunity to engage in dialogue with this well-organized movement, Obama turned his attention away from Iraq. During the first two years of his second term, the president did not make any substantive comment about Iraq, and in June 2013, he proposed 70 to 95 percent cuts in U.S. funding for Iraqi peacebuilding, human rights, and civil society.

By that time, Maliki’s security forces had cracked down violently on protesters in Hawija – a Sunni Arab town in northern Iraq now controlled by ISIS – killing at least 42 unarmed civilians. As one demonstrator told NPR, “For a year, we did not attack anyone; we were an example of democracy on an international level….The world simply turned its face from us and gave Maliki the permission to attack the demonstrations and kill innocent demonstrators.” The international Crisis Group’s Joost Hiltermann would later call Hawija “a poster child for all the ills that would facilitate the [ISIS] takeover one year later.” With silence from Washington and seemingly no protection from international or Iraqi leaders, many Sunnis returned to an insurgency that had largely been crushed in 2011.

The two years following ISIS’s emergence in 2014 have witnessed Obama’s reengagement with Iraq’s challenges and political leaders. Learning from his mistakes in 2011-2014, he tried to adopt a more balanced approach to protect Iraqi civilians, support humanitarian efforts, and address corruption in the Iraqi government. After ISIS swept into Mosul in June 2014, the president predicated his support on Maliki’s removal – a line that succeeded in ushering Haidar al-Abadi into the Prime Minister role. Since then, the White House has supported Abadi’s efforts to address inefficiencies, nepotism, and corruption inside the Iraqi political system, while also maintaining a more balanced approach to the country’s many ethnic and sectarian constituencies.

As the fight against ISIS in northern Iraq grinds on, lessons learned since 2011 – that military and political disengagement can have tragic results – should guide Washington’s policy in Baghdad. Iraq today faces daunting challenges as it defends against ongoing insurgency, rebuilds a shattered country, confronts regional actors seeking to infringe on its sovereignty, and manages ongoing economic crisis. The Obama administration has taken important steps to support these efforts: boosting the U.S. military’s train and equip program for Iraqi Army and Special Forces, providing continued air support for the counter-ISIS fight, pledging funds to help clear mines and debris from liberated areas, implementing civil society programs through USAID, and holding pledging conferences to encourage other nations to contribute as well.

These course corrections since 2014 are positive developments that the incoming president would be wise to follow. While Obama was decried during the 2016 elections as the man who lost Iraq, his legacy is more complex. Public opinion, existing agreements, and stubbornness from partners in Baghdad constrained his actions and limited his options – with disastrous results. Yet Obama’s dubious legacy in Iraq may ultimately offer policymakers in Washington the warning they need to avoid mistakes made over the past eight years and engage constructively with Iraqi leaders to support true stability and prosperity in their country.

Erik Gustafson is founder and executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. He is a veteran of the 1991 Gulf War. @epicEKG

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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