Iraq comes back to haunt Obama

Iraq comes back to haunt Obama
© Greg Nash

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.


But a surge in terror attacks this year that has left more than 7,000 people dead has drawn bipartisan concerns about Obama's Middle East policies — concerns that broke out into the open during Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's visit to the White House this week.

“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 Senate letter was signed by the chairmen and top members on the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations panels: Sens. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinListen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home House Democrats poised to set a dangerous precedent with president’s tax returns The Hill's 12:30 Report — Sponsored by Delta Air Lines — White House to 'temporarily reinstate' Acosta's press pass after judge issues order | Graham to take over Judiciary panel | Hand recount for Florida Senate race MORE (D-Mich.), Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezWe can accelerate a cure for Alzheimer's The Hill's 12:30 Report: Manafort sentenced to total of 7.5 years in prison Acting Defense chief calls Graham an 'ally' after tense exchange MORE (D-N.J.), James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain Inhofe Embattled senators fill coffers ahead of 2020 Overnight Defense: Senators show skepticism over Space Force | Navy drops charges against officers in deadly collision | Trump taps next Navy chief Senators show deep skepticism on Space Force proposal MORE (R-Okla.), Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerPollster says Trump unlikely to face 'significant' primary challenge GOP gets used to saying 'no' to Trump Democrats introduce bill to rein in Trump on tariffs MORE (R-Tenn.), John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders Juan Williams: The high price of working for Trump MORE (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamJudiciary chairman issues subpoena for full Mueller report The Hill's Morning Report — Mueller aftermath: What will House Dems do now? Barr to allow some lawmakers to review less-redacted Mueller report as soon as next week MORE (R-S.C.).

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.”