U.S. soldiers in Iraq, March 2007. Photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway, courtesy The U.S. Army
In early 2007, with events in Iraq spinning out of control, then-President George W. Bush ordered a surge of U.S. forces into the country, over the opposition of many in Congress, including then-Sen. Barack Obama.
The surge worked. By the time Obama succeeded Bush at the start of 2009, Iraq was stable under an elected government. The biggest question remaining was the conditions under which America might remain in the country as a long-term stabilizing force.
But Obama campaigned as the anti-Bush and committed to getting American troops out of Iraq, rather than keeping them there. His administration’s tepid efforts to negotiate a continuing presence ultimately went nowhere and, three years ago, Obama spun this failure as a success when the last American troops pulled out.
Now we’re back. Iraq is again out of control, in a manner different than but comparable to 2006, in what is essentially a sectarian battle. This time, the struggle is highlighted by the savagery that calls itself the Islamic State.
But Obama is not a surging sort of president. He’s an oozer. When he spoke to the country Wednesday night, he portrayed the Islamic State as a long-term threat, rather than an immediate one, despite the recent beheadings of two American journalists. While calling the organization “unique in [its] brutality,” he was quick to make clear that engagement would be limited and deliberate. And while he halfheartedly committed the nation to the militant group’s eventual destruction, he also all but pledged we would fight only through proxies, rather than pulling the triggers ourselves.
“American power can make a decisive difference,” Obama said, “but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.” Thus Obama imposed an upper ceiling on the amount of effort we are willing to expend to combat this allegedly mortal threat. The Iraqi government, which Secretary of State John Kerry described as the “cornerstone” of U.S. strategy, was approved by the country’s lawmakers only this week.
In the 2007 surge, Bush sent 30,000 additional troops into Iraq. Obama is sending 475 military advisers with no combat mission.
The president also outlined three other components of his strategy, including an extension of the existing airstrike campaign, counterterrorism measures and humanitarian assistance. He was careful to contrast his actions to those of his predecessor, comparing them instead to American involvement in Yemen and Somalia.
What was absent, as many who reacted to his speech noted, was a timetable or any clear outline of what conditions would indicate the strategy has succeeded. Obama’s decision to keep such matters vague or omit them entirely, while worrisome, cannot be a surprise to anyone who has paid attention to his presidency as a whole. As I wrote yesterday, the president hates to take any sort of decisive action before the political coast is clear, whether on the domestic or international stages.
Nearly six years into office, this president has not learned that when you want to act like a superpower, or even a major player, you pick a side that you want to win and then make sure that it does. Vladimir Putin has amply demonstrated that he has absorbed this lesson; witness his conduct in Ukraine. Obama, meanwhile, has again chosen the oozing into sanctions approach. China is not seeking multinational collaboration as it aggressively tries to impose its will across the western Pacific. Iran does not care about the world’s approval, or lack thereof, for its nuclear program; it seeks outside support only to the extent of trying to get around Western sanctions.
But our own president is still blinded by his own rhetoric and imprisoned by his misbegotten Nobel Peace Prize. He’s an oozer, not a fighter. His approach does not bode well for America’s goals in the Middle East.