At the end of October the New York Times hailed President Obama’s foreign policy as “pragmatic,” while largely ignoring the consequences.
The two month old article was written by the White House reporter, but a recent article written from Beirut, Power Vacuum in Middle East Lifts Militants paints a somewhat less flattering picture of the administration’s foreign policy.
For the first time since the American troop withdrawal of 2011, fighters from a Qaeda affiliate have recaptured Iraqi territory. In the past few days they have seized parts of the two biggest cities in Anbar Province, where the government, which the fighters revile as a tool of Shiite Iran, struggles to maintain a semblance of authority.
Lebanon has seen two deadly car bombs, including one that killed a senior political figure and American ally.
In Syria, the tempo of violence has increased, with hundreds of civilians killed by bombs dropped indiscriminately on houses and markets.
Linking all this mayhem is an increasingly naked appeal to the atavistic loyalties of clan and sect. Foreign powers’ imposing agendas on the region, and the police-state tactics of Arab despots, had never allowed communities to work out their long-simmering enmities. But these divides, largely benign during times of peace, have grown steadily more toxic since the Iranian revolution of 1979. The events of recent years have accelerated the trend, as foreign invasions and the recent round of Arab uprisings left the state weak, borders blurred, and people resorting to older loyalties for safety.
I find it interesting that the reporters here trace the schisms of the Middle East to the Iranian revolution; the regime that the Obama administration has, in fact, has turned to for help. There’s one country I mean to focus on here. Later the article reports:
For all the attention paid to Syria over the past three years, Iraq’s slow disintegration also offers a vivid glimpse of the region’s bloody sectarian dynamic. In March 2012, Anthony Blinken, who is now President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, gave a speech echoing the White House’s rosy view of Iraq’s prospects after the withdrawal of American forces.
Iraq, Mr. Blinken said, was “less violent, more democratic and more prosperous” than “at any time in recent history.”
But the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, was already pursuing an aggressive campaign against Sunni political figures that infuriated Iraq’s Sunni minority. Those sectarian policies and the absence of American ground and air forces gave Al Qaeda in Iraq, a local Sunni insurgency that had become a spent force, a golden opportunity to rebuild its reputation as a champion of the Sunnis both in Iraq and in neighboring Syria. Violence in Iraq grew steadily over the following year.
Note the qualification here “after the withdrawal of American forces.”
Max Boot observes in lamenting Iraq’s Squandered Opportunity:
There was nothing inevitable about the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq. If the U.S. had kept troops in Iraq after 2011 and if Prime Minister Maliki had pursued more inclusive policies toward the Sunnis, AQI would have remained defeated, in all likelihood.
While Boot directs most of his criticism at Maliki, he is clear that the precipitous withdrawal of American troops played a role in undermining Iraq’s security.
Charles Krauthammer was more explicit Who Lost Iraq?
U.S. commanders recommended nearly 20,000 troops, considerably fewer than our 28,500 in Korea, 40,000 in Japan and 54,000 in Germany. The president rejected those proposals, choosing instead a level of 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
In other words the administration rejected the military’s advice and now Iraq (and the greater Middle East) is paying the price.
The forthcoming book from former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates sheds some light on President Obama’s thinking.
Yesterday, in PJTatler, Bryan Preston quoted a passage from the book.
“Hillary told the president that her opposition to the  surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.”
Preston rightly observes:
The same cavalier attitude is playing out again, as Islamists sweep the Middle East and Iraq falls apart thanks to Obama’s premature retreat from the country, and he allows anti-war politics coupled with his own tilt toward some Islamist factions to drive his moves. Obama’s whole approach to the war against al Qaeda has been to claim victory while sounding retreat.
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