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Out of America: Two presidents. Two styles. One Iraq

The war that George W Bush plunged the United States into has cast a permanent shadow over his successor

To travel across the Atlantic these past few days has been to travel back in time. A savage new war rages in Iraq, but you would think the last one was still in progress. Arriving in Britain was to be greeted by a call to arms from Tony Blair, urging the West to intervene and dismissing any notion that the 2003 invasion might have anything to do with the turmoil now.

When I returned to the US, there was Dick Cheney, another ghost from that great disaster, lambasting Barack Obama in the comment pages of The Wall Street Journal. The war that he and George W Bush gratuitously started, costing 200,000-plus lives and $3trn and counting, had been a victory. Its fruits had been thrown away by the feckless current occupant of the White House, and 2011’s full withdrawal of US troops – a decision, the former vice-president declared, that “betrayed our past and squandered our freedom”.

And in another way too, to quote the baseball sage Yogi Berra, the current crisis in Iraq is but a case of “déjà vu all over again”: a tale of two presidents in their second terms, both struggling to respond to events in a distant corner of the Middle East threatening to consume their post-re‑election ambitions.

The instinct-driven, shoot-first-think-later Bush and the cerebral, cautious and low-key Obama couldn’t be more different – but their dilemmas are similar. Back in 2006, Bush was confronted by an Iraq unravelling into chaos and ordered the troop surge that would haul it back from the brink. Eight years on, an equally critical challenge faces Obama: how to stop Iraq from being overrun by militant Islamist forces, and head off the possible dismemberment of the country and a sectarian conflict that might redraw the entire map of the region.

Thursday’s announcement that 300 US “advisers” will be sent to help the beleaguered Iraqi army is a far cry from Bush’s despatch of 20,000 front-line troops to augment a 160,000-strong American force already there. But this, for all the caveats, for all the vows that ground troops will not be sent, is Obama’s reluctant “surge”. The man who famously described Iraq as a “dumb war” even before Bush launched it, and who won the presidency in part because of his promise to get America out, is now taking America back. And truth to tell, he had no choice.

“Act now to save the future,” Mr Blair demands. But Britain is a minor global player these days. Not so the US. You may disagree with Dick Cheney’s assertion that “without American pre-eminence there can be no world order”. The fact remains, however, whether you like it or not, that America is still seen as the world’s policeman. In any major crisis, eyes turn, sooner rather than later, to Washington for leadership, and accordingly pressure on a president to act is intense.

Take the Republican Senator John McCain, defeated by Obama in 2008 and a reliable supporter of US intervention abroad. McCain recognises that the Iraq mess has no simple answer, but the only thing worse than doing something is doing nothing. Add to that the Cheney attacks on Obama, that presidential passivity is disconcerting allies and destroying American prestige abroad, and the pressure becomes virtually irresistible. No leader, not even one as cool and rational as Obama, and who will never have to face the voters again, is impervious to taunts that he is weak.

But what to do? If ever an international crisis resembled three-dimensional chess, it is this one. The hoary principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” is propelling the US towards making up with Iran: the same Shia Iran that the US is subjecting to sanctions over its nuclear programme and which is helping to keep Bashar Assad in power, the same Assad that the US wants to remove (or does it any longer?).

Any such rapprochement, moreover, would further alarm Israel, the prime target of any Iranian nuclear weapon and Washington’s closest ally in the region. It would also give the impression that the US is taking sides in the Middle East’s age-old Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict, risking further strains with its Sunni allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia, Iran’s great rival for supremacy in the Gulf and beyond. Treacherous waters indeed, that even a master diplomat like Henry Kissinger would be hard pressed to navigate.

Seen in this light, Obama’s response has been eminently sensible. The 300 advisers are a bare minimum; they could be supplemented by air strikes but, barring total collapse, it is clear that no sustained action will be taken against Isis until Iraq’s sectarian prime minister, the Shia Nouri al-Maliki, is replaced by a government that genuinely shares power and promotes national unity.

On top of this, public opinion, on Iraq at least, is on his side. Yes, the President’s approval is a dismal 40 per cent or so, with mid-term elections less than five months off. But Obama’s Democratic Party has long been heading for trouble, for reasons unrelated to the crisis in the Middle East.

On that score, moreover, forget Cheney. If such a thing were possible, most Americans would favour a giant fence around Iraq and Syria, so that those within could pursue their ancestral, incomprehensible feuds and the rest of the world could get on with its business undisturbed. But the post-9/11 world is not like that, and America has an obvious and vital national security interest in Iraq. The state that wasn’t a global terrorism threat when the US and Britain invaded in 2003 most definitely is one now.

Obama’s real domestic difficulty is different, and again, the parallels with his predecessor are striking. By late 2006, on the eve of the surge, Americans were simply tuning Bush out. The same, one feels, is happening with Obama now. Lame-duck status is fast descending; his ability to deliver is perceived as close to zero, and minds are turning to 2016. Nothing that happens in Iraq is likely to change that.