In foreign policy Barack Obama is proving to be the supreme pragmatist

Americans want another land war in the Middle East like a hole in the head

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The Independent Online

A malign shade named Iraq has returned to haunt America’s nascent 2016 presidential campaign. The past few days, beginning with the humiliating fall of Ramadi to the radical Islamists of IS, and ending with its seizure of the last government-controlled crossing point from next-door Syria, has offered proof, were any needed, of how dreadfully wrong things have gone since the last US combat troops left Iraq at the end of 2011 – a step that was supposed to draw a final line under eight years of war.

Of course, the shade of Iraq has never gone away. In good measure, Barack Obama owed his crucial victory over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries to his opposition to  George W Bush’s “dumb war”. Four years later, completion of the pull-out undoubtedly helped him win a second presidential term, as he fulfilled a promise that was supported by a country which by then regarded the 2003 invasion as a terrible mistake.

And all along the Republicans – once the party that could be trusted with national security – paid a heavy price. The Iraq mess was seen as their mess, despite the support of many Democrats, including Clinton, for the invasion. The vast expenditure of blood and treasure, Americans came to believe, had been brought about by a coterie of GOP hawks and neo-cons, peddling nonsense about Saddam Hussein’s imagined weapons of mass destruction. But now, if Republicans have their way, that narrative is about to change.

Their strategy ahead of the 2016 vote is clear. In terms of demographics and the electorate’s more liberal social bent (broad support for gay marriage), the tide is not running the Republicans’ way. But the chaos in the Middle East and elsewhere, and Obama’s muted and much criticised response to it, offers them a golden chance to reclaim the national security mantle.

First, though, the party must shed the burden of Iraq. And the shambles that has followed the 2011 withdrawal provides the opening. Who, Republicans ask, is really to blame? Not Bush, who sent the troops in the first place but whose 2007 “surge” briefly stabilised the country – but Obama, who withdrew the troops too soon and too hastily, throwing that stability away.

To which the president has now responded, in a fascinating interview with The Atlantic magazine. “No, I don’t think we’re losing,” he said of the debacle in Ramadi, essentially re-iterating the Pentagon’s line that victory over IS would take years, and that setbacks along the way were inevitable. That response may be a case of what Americans call “whistling Dixie”, but Obama’s cool logic and self-confident rationalism cannot fail to impress.

This is a White House incumbent facing an unprecedented set of interlocking dilemmas. What to do about Syria’s horrific civil war? Should the US make common cause with Bashar al-Assad, the prime author of that civil war, and with its old rival Iran, against IS? How much of a threat to America are the Islamists, really? Should the US, as some urge, launch an all-out assault against them – a step that would lead to direct American involvement in the Syrian conflict?

And that’s only a start. When to support Sunnis and when Shias, in what increasingly resembles a religious war across the Middle East? How to contain the diplomatic, military and nuclear ambitions of Iran, America’s great rival, and keep the trust of old but disgruntled allies such as Saudi Arabia – not to mention Israel, the one true friend of the US in the region? And how long can Washington, the Middle East’s traditional arbiter, tolerate the fact that the two dominant actors there now are Iran and IS?

Reading the Atlantic interview, you realise not only how deeply Obama has thought about these issues, you almost get the feeling that he’s written off both Iraq and Syria, countries artificially created from the rubble of the Ottoman empire, and whose arbitrary border in the sands east of Palmyra – now too part of the self-styled caliphate – has now vanished.


The US has sacrificed enough already, Obama argues, and it is not for Washington to write blank cheques to stem the tide of history: “If the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.” Instead, the considered conclusion of the law professor and supreme pragmatist who occupies the Oval Office is that the real priority is a deal with Iran to curb its nuclear programme.

Here, he reasons, lies the best hope both of making the region safer by turning Iran into a constructive, rather than destructive, force and of advancing US interests there. This, too, may be whistling Dixie. Tehran hardliners could renege on the agreement, or use resources freed by the lifting of sanctions to stir up more trouble. Obama is aware he risks being played for a sucker. “Look,” he told The Atlantic, “20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this.”

For the moment he’s winning the political argument. The bottom line – as Republicans well know – is that Americans want another land war in the Middle East like a hole in the head. A Republican Congress and the party’s presidential candidates may bloviate about a more forceful American policy against IS. But press them about what exactly they mean, and the answer is more special forces, more trainers and advisers (the US currently has 3,000 in Iraq), more airstrikes and more arms shipments: exactly what Obama is doing right now.

But more defeats like Ramadi and Palmyra could change that calculus. Pressure will grow for more special forces, more trainers and then old-fashioned boots on the ground. At which point, another shade, even more malign, could retake the stage. Its name is Vietnam.