President Obama's Impossible Choices in Iraq

Larry Downing/Reuters

As a frequent critic of President Obama's foreign-policy record, particularly his unlawful decision to wage war in Libya without congressional approval and his shortsighted, immoral over-reliance on drone strikes in several countries, I applaud his decision to order food and water dropped on refugees in Northern Iraq.

Assuming that the situation is as reported—an ethnic minority group facing death by thirst or starvation if they remain in their mountain hideout, or slaughter at the hands of a genocidal enemy should they descend to seek sustenance—the minimal risk to Americans of delivering supplies is more than justified, particularly given that the Iraqi government has assented to the mission. Considering the stark choices, I presume that there is no shortage of U.S. pilots who'd willingly volunteer to carry it out. "The aircraft assigned to dropping food and water ... were a single C-17 and two C-130 aircraft," The New York Times reported. "They were escorted by a pair of F-18 jet fighters .... The planes were over the drop zone for about 15 minutes, and flew at a relatively low altitude ... and dropped 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 meals ready to eat." 

President Obama has just authorized various uses of military force in Iraq as well. 

"I said in June, as the terrorist group ISIL began an advance across Iraq, that the U.S. would be prepared to take targeted military action in Iraq if and when we determined that the situation required it," he said Thursday night. "In recent days, these terrorists have continued to move across Iraq, and have neared the city of Erbil, where American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces. To stop the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city. We intend to ... take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad. We’re also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL."

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About all that, I withhold judgment while acknowledging the difficult decision Obama faces—and my fear that he intends to intervene more fully than he is acknowledging. I have no idea whether the course he's setting is imprudent, prescient, or something in between.

If anyone tells you otherwise, read what they've written on Iraq since 2002. Have they been wrong on huge questions? Did they anticipate major turning points in the past? Odds are they have no idea what will happen next.

The hawks now insisting that Iraq would be in much better shape if only American troops had stayed there would do particularly well to remember their utter inability to accurately forecast events in that country. For an example of failed humility, here's John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, casting blame on Obama:

What Obama is responsible for is this: Having assumed we had lost in Iraq (and probably having believed that loss was just, given how little he thought of the war and the reasons for fighting it), he became president and was basically informed that the war had all but been won while he was assaulting it on the way to his landslide election. Only a colossal fool would have thrown the Petraeus-Bush gift of an Iraq rescued from civil war and on its way to a stable future in the garbage, and Obama is not a fool. So he didn’t. What he did do was remain ever mindful of his promise to leave and how failing to deliver on that promise might affect his chances in 2012. So when the continued American presence in Iraq became contingent on reaching a legal agreement with the new government, he and his people trumped up reasons why Iraq was making that agreement impossible...and America walked.

If you want to see Obama’s monument there, just look: ISIS on the march. The Christians of Mosul decimated and set to flee. Strategic Iraqi assets from oil to water in the hands of what is now indubitably the worst non-state actor in the region since al Qaeda’s heyday. And the possibility of some kind of super-terror state under ISIS control from the Iraqi border with Iran to the lands west of Iraq in Syria.

Alternative history cannot be definitively disproved. There's no way to know what would be happening now if Obama had left more troops in Iraq. But if you've been wrong about Iraq as frequently as Podhoretz or the magazine he runs, it is perverse to profess certainty that the war was "all but won" by 2009, that Iraq would now be stable if only the president had listened to you, when of course you have no earthly way of knowing whether that is actually true. Podhoretz's definition of a war that was all but won required the indefinite presence of U.S. troops. His prior positions on Iraq include a belief that firing Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 would definitely lose the Iraq War, as well as the notion that perhaps the U.S. could've only won in Iraq by slaughtering Sunni men between 15 and 35.

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On March 17, 2006, in "Iraq's Overlooked Triumph," Podhoretz wrote:

Despite the insistence of some realist conservatives that we have learned the folly of attempting to plant democratic ideas in the ruined earth of Iraq, the evidence of the past two weeks is that the seeds we planted are bearing fruit among the politicians elected in those dramatic and moving elections .... Iraqi politicians have sought to find common ground to calm the sectarian waters ... for now, the members of Iraq’s political class have chosen hope—chosen to fight their battles at the bargaining table rather than in the streets. By doing so, they are, in fact, offering an example of what democratic institutions are intended to do ... because many critics are desperate to see President Bush discredited and disgraced, the triumph of the political class in Iraq has been little noted. But if it holds, what has happened in the past two weeks will probably be seen as a turning point—and a validation of George Bush’s conviction that Iraq could eventually become a democracy."

Hurray for Iraq's politicians!

Three weeks later, in "Iraq's Pathetic Pols," Podhoretz had this to say about Iraq's politicians:

The people of Iraq have done their part. They voted, at great personal risk, in overwhelming numbers on three separate occasions .... And what has come from it? The astounding dereliction of Iraq’s elites, the supposed leaders and future leaders of the country. Shiite politicians won a plurality of the seats, yet they’ve spent months caviling and complaining about sharing power in any way with the minority Sunnis. Now Shiite pols are warring among themselves, jockeying for power and, most ominously, lining up with different armed militias to demonstrate that they have firepower of their own and can’t be ignored .... Iraq’s Sunni and Kurd politicians are far from faultless as well .... It’s a tragedy that the politicians have failed to rise to the challenge as well as the man and woman in the Iraqi street .... The question remains ... whether Iraq’s elites can find it in themselves to act in ways that further their country’s democratic future instead of collapsing into factional anarchy.

This is but a small sample of Podhoretz's inconsistent commentary. How does this man still have confidence in his ability to forecast events in Iraq? Here's more analysis from August 2006 expressing yet another take on the country

The grinding Second War may have come to a successful conclusion due to two events: The formation of the Iraqi government on May 20 and the killing of Zarqawi on June 8. The inability of the enemies of progress to prevent the government from coming to power must have been a huge blow, and certainly the death of its key strategist may have been the coup de grace. The Coalition casualty toll has decelerated radically in the last 9 weeks. But now Iraqis are dying at a gruesome rate—in civil strife between Shiites and Sunnis.

As many as 1,300 people were killed last month alone.

This is the Third Iraq War, and the most striking aspect of it is that it doesn’t involve us. The Sunnis have now embarked on what I think is a pretty crazy strategy of trying to engage Iraq’s Shiites in vicious sectarian conflict. It’s crazy because the Shiites outnumber the Sunnis three-to-one. It’s even crazier because the Shiites have a natural ally in Iran, a Shiite nation that can secretly or not so secretly help them to win. But then, the Sunni strategies in this conflict haven’t been entirely rational. Saddam’s demented strategy before the war failed to keep us from invading. The insurgent strategy of trying to drive us out ultimately failed to shake American and British resolve. And now they seemed determined to start a civil war that they can only lose.

If the Sunnis and Shiites really go at it, it’s hard to see what exactly we can do to get them to stop. And thus, if the civil war flowers fully, the Third Iraq War may be the one we’re going to lose. Even though we’re not one of the combatants, a sectarian victory by Shiites fighting with Iran’s backing will strengthen Tehran. And a stronger Iran is not something any American should want to see. If Iraq wants to commit suicide in this manner—if the Sunnis want to be massacred and the Shiites want to end up under Iran’s thumb—what can be done to prevent it?

This is directly at odds with the notion that Obama even could've lost Iraq by failing to keep troops there. But why expect consistency over years from Podhoretz when his always confident analysis of the war has swung at others times in a matter of weeks?

The optimal policy in Iraq right now is beyond my knowledge. I strongly suspect that it is beyond everyone else's knowledge too, but if the choice is between trusting the neoconservatives or Obama, as depressing as that choice is to me, I have no problem determining who's been wrong on Iraq earlier, more often, and with greater consequences in the past, though they never admit it. Hawkish hubris and irrepressible faux-certainty makes Obama look good by comparison, quite a feat given his own ample missteps and shortcomings. Let's all hope that in the present crisis he succeeds spectacularly, whatever that means, remembering that none of us would know just what to do in his place.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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