A squandered legacy

iraq bombI am very optimistic about — about Iraq. I mean, this could be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.

That was Joe Biden in February 2010. Yes, yes, it was remarkably hypocritical of Biden to claim credit for the surge in Iraq, a policy which he, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton all voted against for “this administration”, but let us give him some credit at least and assume that his description of the facts on the ground four years ago was somewhat close to reality. What has gone wrong in the years since then?

Obviously, one thing that has changed is that the Obama administration has implemented the policy on which it was elected: setting a deadline for the withdrawal of troops and then withdrawing them. This is a policy which Biden and Clinton both opposed during the 2008 primaries. Biden called it a crazy policy, though it what he had had advocated in 2005. Perhaps Biden (in 2008) and Clinton were right, and Barack Obama was wrong.

Of course, most of what has gone wrong in Iraq has gone wrong in Iraq, not in the United States. The policies of the al-Maliki administration have alienated the Sunni and, to a lesser extent, Kurdish populations. The Shia majority obviously had to be brought into the government – from which they were excluded for decades. They did not have to administer power in a corrupt and sectarian way. 

That some reconciliation was required between the different factions has been obvious all along, at least to anyone who grew up in a pluralist society. It is certain that both the Bush and Obama administrations have been pressing the Iraqi government on this. The question is, could they and should they, have been pressing harder? 

The US lost a lot of leverage, first when the administration set a deadline for withdrawing troops and again when the troops were actually withdrawn. It is possible that the expectation of American troops withdrawing genuinely did quiet things down for a while. The obvious approach among Sunni militants, especially those affiliated to al Qaeda, would have been first to claim victory, and use this as a recruiting cry, but also to hold off on attacks against the Iraqi government until American troops actually did withdraw. A period of retrenchment made sense. 

But this left Iraq weakened and American influence weakened. The only possible source of support for al Maliki has been Iran, whose influence in Iraq has grown immeasurably in the past few years. Despite the fact that the US and Iran have no diplomatic relations, everyone agrees that a lasting settlement will need to involve Iran. 

Iran is already the major sponsor of the Assad regime, which governs parts of Syria and of Hezbollah, which controls parts of Lebanon. An Iranian dominated ark running from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean is not only a real possibility but may even have the tacit blessing of American policy. 

Iraq could be split between Iran and al-Qaeda. Yet a more measured withdrawal which allowed the US to preserve some influence was a real possibility, deliberately squandered by this president.

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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