The Iraq Crisis is Not About Obama, But About Making the Hard Choices


The headlines are abuzz this morning, talking about President Obama’s announcement that he has authorized targeted airstrikes in Iraq for humanitarian reasons. Having just extricated ourselves from Bush’s war there, are we going back to Iraq?

Obama rejected that idea last night. While asserting that “We need to act, and act now,” he told the world the hard truth, and that is that “There’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”

The United States broke Iraq. But events there have moved beyond the point at which America can fix it. Arguably, that point was 2003, when Bush declared “mission accomplished” and he had no idea what to do with his victory and let it become his defeat instead.

Bush’s partner in Iraq, Britain, has now – also for humanitarian reasons – voiced support for Obama’s decision to intervene with airstrikes, but has ruled out joining the U.S. by rejecting military action. Bush’s great adventure has become as unpopular in Britain as in the U.S.

Another question being asked this morning is, what does all this mean for Obama’s legacy? This is the president, after all, who centered his foreign policy on extricating America from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Julie Pace on AP’s The Big Story, writes that,

After years of resisting the pull of more Mideast conflicts, President Barack Obama is ready to return the United States to military action in Iraq, the very country where he accused his predecessor of engaging in a “dumb war.”

It is almost as though there is a suggestion here that Obama is somehow being Bush, that once having criticized Bush for intervening in Iraq, he is being dumb too and somehow surrendering the moral high ground.

But Obama is being, as always, a realist. As a practitioner of realpolitik rather than Neocon or conservative ideological illusions, Obama knows when he is at the point where, whatever he may like to be true, the facts on the ground dictate otherwise. Sometimes in history, there are no good choices, and the best choice is only the least objectionable.

It is also wrong to compare any Obama intervention in 2014 with the 2003 war launched by President Bush. The Bush war was a dumb war, completely unnecessary in pursuit of Bush’s own avowed purpose of destroying al Qaeda.

The Iraq War functioned more as a means of self-aggrandizement for Bush and as a means of settling his daddy issues, and also a vast, if poorly organized, plundering expedition for so-called Neocons. Along with America’s reputation abroad and economy at home, Bush destroyed Iraq’s government, economy, and infrastructure, and created the conditions in which ISIL now prospers.

The Iraq War has limited America’s current and future responses to the consequences, immediate and extended, of the American occupation and mismanagement of the country. President Obama’s successor will find him or herself equally constrained by what Bush did from 2003 to 2008 in a country America had no business being involved with in the first place.

But as so often happens in the mainstream media, the search for context goes nowhere, or at least, not beyond Obama himself.

For example, Pace writes,

It also raises fresh questions about whether Obama’s desire to end that conflict clouded his assessment of the risks of fully withdrawing U.S. troops, as well as his judgment about the threat posed by the Islamic extremists who have taken advantage of a vulnerable Iraq.

While the situation may be evolving quickly, the conditions that returned the U.S. to the brink of military action in Iraq can be traced back months — or to the president’s critics, even years.

Years yes. But years beyond Obama. History did not being in 2008. By then we had been in Iraq for five years.

Unfortunately, because of the utter incompetence of the Bush administration, Obama’s legacy, if we want to talk about that before he exits office, is not entirely his own. No president escapes the context of his times, but Obama’s is more constrained than is usual. His cannot be extricated from the extreme incompetence of Bush’s own legacy, and Obama’s actions in Iraq must be understood in the context of the mismanaged war fought by the Bush administration, which resulted not only in the ruination of America but that of Iraq.

It is Bush who created the conditions on the ground that lead to the rise of ISIL, not Obama’s withdrawal of the troops. It is not Obama’s judgment that needs to be called into question, but that of the Bush administration. Ultimately, the situation in Iraq is not about the Obama legacy. This is a continuation of the Bush legacy.

To be blunt, and we must be blunt at this point, Obama was left with a pile of crap. You cannot reasonably expect him to make a cake out of it, but that seems to be what is being demanded. While Pace asserts that, “For Obama, the threat of undermining his own legacy on Iraq could hardly come at a worse time,” Obama, perhaps alone on Capitol Hill, seems to realize that this is not about Obama. This is about having the strength of character to make the hard choices, something no Republican has been willing to do in more than a decade.

There are good, sound reasons to avoid going back to Iraq. It was very nearly America’s graveyard. It could yet be, if hawks like the Bush war criminals – who created the crisis in the first place – get their way. It’s endlessly fascinating how the mainstream media can challenge Obama’s decision-making while ignoring that of Cheney & Co.

John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement yesterday following Obama’s announcement, saying that “If ever there were a time to reevaluate our disastrous policy in the Middle East, this is it.”

On the contrary, I would argue on very good grounds that that time was 2003. Both McCain and Lindsey Graham supported establishing that disastrous policy which, more than anything Obama has done or could have done, led to the creation and success of ISIL, and the current crisis in Iraq, and that as a consequence, it is too late for them to pretend to know better today.

The AP analysis, and those others found on the mainstream or right-wing media this morning, may present a big story, but they are not even close to presenting the big picture.

Hrafnkell Haraldsson

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