I have just read a most interesting bit of news on the computer. The Associated Press reports that the Iraqi government is interested in getting some American assistance it it’s struggle with al Qaeda in Iraq. Violence in Iraq has been escalating since the American military left in 2011 and has returned to the levels of the bad old days at the height of the U.S. military era in Iraq. The government realizes that their resources are not adequate to squash the al Qaeda insurgency and that the last time that violence in Iraq was under control was when the American forces and their intelligence and advisor resources were available to help the Iraqi military and police. This request, if it is truly as it was reported in the newspaper, represents a domestic and foreign policy nightmare for President Obama.
Barack Obama ran his first presidential campaign on promises to be the opposite of George W. Bush in every way. Departing Iraq, closing Guantanamo Bay, and focusing on victory in Afghanistan were prominent features of that campaign. Shortly after the election President Obama made a speech in Cairo in which he reached out to Muslims, which in itself is not a bad thing, and he embraced the “Arab Spring” early in the game. We now see a new dynamic all across that region. U.N. (read ‘mostly American’) troops are set to begin leaving Afghanistan and everyone on the planet knows that it will return to the status of a Taliban-run haven for international terrorists and a place of oppression of women on a scale that makes my skin crawl. Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, is now governed by islamists, and moderate politicians there tend to get shot. Libya is a nightmare, and the most inept leadership and bureaucratic non-cooperation since Jimmy Carter resulted in a murdered ambassador and several other dead embassy employees. Egypt is in near meltdown, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula projects terror from Yemen in multiple directions, and the civil war in Syria now features prominently al Qaeda who are jockeying for primacy in that movement and are cooperating with Iraqi al Qaeda to foment terror and unrest throughout both countries.
The President has a horrible mess to deal with. He is not stupid, and knows that a Middle East in flames is not good for the U.S. or the rest of the world. President Obama also knows that his own support base would go ballistic if he even considered reintroducing military personnel into Iraq, and that would distract and possibly derail his agenda for the rest of his presidency. At the same time it would not look well in the president’s presidential history to see Iraq dissolve with the Kurds breaking free, the largely Shi’a east and south joining Iran, and the Sunni areas becoming a lawless zone much like Somalia or what Afghanistan is poised to return to.
I wonder if President Obama is up to this challenge? I would wonder this about any president. If there is one clear, safe policy path here I don’t see it. A reintroduction of advisors and intelligence services would be the lowest impact with the highest reward from the American perspective, but when advisors begin to get killed by al Qaeda moles how long will the support base of the president keep silent? And when the whole Middle East goes up in flames the President will eventually be graded poorly for it’s having happened on his watch regardless of what he could or could not do about it.
I am glad that I do not hold that position, and I feel for the man who does. As the new presidential cycle begins after the fall elections I encourage everyone to evaluate carefully the candidates. Anyone who really, really wants that job is probably, by definition, unfit for it.