Obama’s Iraq policy: That curious feeling of deja-vu

ONE OF THE GREATEST IRONIES of Barack Obama’s presidency is the extent to which he is repeating, rather than correcting, his predecessor’s mistakes in Iraq. Obama originally defined himself as the anti-Bush, chastising reckless foreign policy, vowing to bring the US’ military adventures overseas to a close. In general, he framed his international posture as the opposite of Bushism — rational and realist, grounded in narrowly defined national interests rather than ideological whims. Iraq happens to offer a spectacular counterpoint. Not only are current policies replicas of past ones, they are leaving Iraq – 13 years into the war and eight years after Obama’s promise to end it – in a worse state than when his administration took over.

Of course, Bush’s original sin was the 2003 invasion itself—a reckless, hubristic affair that sent Iraq spinning into a state of blood-soaked anarchy. Here, indeed, Obama lurched in the opposite direction, opting for a precipitate withdrawal that – rather than end his predecessor’s war – allowed a half-stabilized Iraq to quickly backslide into chaos. Beyond this point, however, the pictures begin to align, and a feeling of déjà vu sets in.

Two particular commonalities stand out. First is a focus on military victory in a political vacuum, with no apparent strategy for the day after. In 2003, Bush et al. made the fatal error of supposing that toppling Saddam would be the end of the story, rather than its preamble; evict the tyrant, demolish his power structure, cry out “mission accomplished,” and freedom would reign. Today, a similar process is underway: the Obama White House may have no illusions about a democratic future for Iraq, but it is nonetheless fully absorbed in a headlong rush for tactical victory – this time in the Islamic State-held city of Mosul – despite a total and unapologetic lack of preparation for what will come next.

Second, and closely related, is Washington’s continuing failure to use its enormous financial and military leverage to push for basic reforms that could render Iraq’s political and security institutions sustainable in the long-term. Politically, both White Houses have watched as the government in Baghdad sinks further into sectarianism, corruption and incompetence, refusing to push back against this trend for fear of compromising short-term security goals. Militarily, Obama – like Bush before him – has responded to the dismal performance of Iraq’s regular army by propping up a patchwork of elite counterterror units and paramilitary groups that, while effective in the short-term, are no substitute for a functioning military.

These expedient practices have paid dividends with respect to fleeting military gains, but they also ensure that the Iraqi state and all of its components will continue to decay. The result has been a cyclical pattern in which rounds of wanton violence leave the country ever more gutted, and recovery ever more remote.

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Illustration credit: Gustave Doré’s illustration to Dante’s Inferno. Plate XXII: Canto VII: The hoarders and wasters by Wikipedia / licensed by CC.