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Foreign Policy Unraveling
Beinart Blames Obama Too

Peter Beinart has joined the growing chorus of commentators putting the blame for the Iraq crisis squarely at President Obama’s feet. By failing to follow up with diplomatic pressure after President Bush’s surge, Beinart argues, the Obama Administration failed to check Nouri al-Maliki’s growing authoritarian tendencies and anti-Sunni purges. The end result of this policy of deliberate inattention is what we have before us:

In recent days, Republicans have slammed Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But the real problem with America’s military withdrawal was that it exacerbated a diplomatic withdrawal that had been underway since Obama took office.

The decline of U.S. leverage in Iraq simply reinforced the attitude Obama had held since 2009: Let Maliki do whatever he wants so long as he keeps Iraq off the front page.

On December 12, 2011, just days before the final U.S. troops departed Iraq, Maliki visited the White House. According to Nasr, he told Obama that Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, an Iraqiya leader and the highest-ranking Sunni in his government, supported terrorism. Maliki, argues Nasr, was testing Obama, probing to see how the U.S. would react if he began cleansing his government of Sunnis. Obama replied that it was a domestic Iraqi affair. After the meeting, Nasr claims, Maliki told aides, “See! The Americans don’t care.”

Beinart, no fan of the Bushies, predicts that liberal Democrats generally will be forced to this position in the end. If so, the percentage of Americans who disapprove of Obama’s foreign policy performance will grow past the current elevated levels. Again, in many ways it looks as if Barack Obama has been less the Democratic Reagan, shifting national politics to the left for a generation, than the second coming of Jimmy Carter, preparing the ground for a swing to the right by convincing voters that the Democratic left lacks the ideas or the capacity to govern in a dangerous world.

We will have to wait and see; with 30 months left in the Oval Office, the President could still turn things around—or catch a few lucky breaks. But unless there is a real shift in the direction of events, the debate among even very liberal Democrats is going to be a debate over why Obama failed.

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  • Shahar Luft

    The left-liberal mindset is structurally incapable of understanding how the international order works. They basically think of politics as an extension of interpersonal relations, and of international politics as an extension of national politics. Hence, the central role of violence in international relations, the lack of role for gratitude or compassion, can simply not be registered by left-liberals. It goes below their radar, beyond their colour scale, or whatever the appropriate metaphor is. This applies for Beinart too. The surge succeeded because it manifested power at its rawest: troops in the streets. The Sunni elders respected that, and joined the American bandwagon. This has nothing to do with diplomatic engagement or show of care. When in doubt, you side with the stronger party. You know it’s the stronger party because they kill more people than the others. If your forces leave, no amount of diplomatic engagement can mend that.

    Having said that, I also think that Obama’s decision to disengage was a reasonable one. Arab societies, with few exceptions, are so fragile that no amount of armed or peaceful intervention can put them right, It was a hopleless case from day one.

    • S.C. Schwarz

      Well said. I originally supported the war in Iraq on the grounds that even the risk of a nuclear weapon in the hands of Saddam Hussein made it worth it. However I now see I was wrong. Iraq society and indeed Middle Eastern society in general was much worse than I realized and the cost to us of trying to reform them, even if possible, is too high.

      • Curious Mayhem

        In this epoch, it’s pointless to try to “fix” these heaps of tribes. We can take a more defensive approach, look for new friends and not spurn old ones, while subjecting the trouble areas to a semi-quarantine. If jihadi groups can’t be defeated over there, and we don’t want them over here, this is what we must do.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Beinart is hilarious, and I don’t mean intentionally. He’s a puffed-up, strutting blowhard. Nice to see he’s taken his head out of that warm, dark place for a short while to take stock of what’s going down.

  • Anthony

    Oh yeah. Let’s invade Syria! That will make those poll numbers skyrocket. Maybe professor Mead and the other neocons at this magazine can lead the first wave into Damascus. What a joke.

    Why don’t be just partition Iraq, asap? That is what is going to happen in the long run anyway, whether we like it or not.

    • Curious Mayhem

      Yes — although this needs to be done as a matter of recognizing and ratifying a fait accompli instigated by regional actors (like the Kurds). It’s not going to fly, for many reasons, if it’s simply imposed from the outside. Many recommended that the Bush administration do just that, in 2005 or 2007, but they wisely refrained.

  • Angel Martin

    Iraq is indisputably worse than it was when Bush left office

    Beinart and co. have finally figured out that it’s just totally implausible to blame bush when obama has been president for the past five and a half years.

    the author hopes that the president catches a few lucky breaks, and maybe turns things around

    fact is, obama has been lucky:
    -even with iraq, the public sees it as a problem that america can’t solve, not an obama failure.

    obama’s luck will run out if there is something like the green zone being over-run, with thousands of american hostages.

  • ljgude

    For me the lesson here is that if you let them the jihadis will will make a come back. With their takeover of Sunni Iraq they have demonstrated that. So Obama’s hands off approach doesn’t work either which doesn’t surprise me in the least. Bush’s approach didn’t work because we were not prepared to say in Iraq the way we were in Europe or Korea, and given what has happened I’m not arguing that is what we should have done. What I am arguing is that there are plenty of of lessons to learn in the failure of both Bush’s and Obama’s policies. Will the next president do better? I sure hope so. I would also point out that the jihadi’s have learned some lessons too. They have stopped attacking the West in general and the US in particular in an organized way. No more 9/11s, Bali, London or Madrid. Just free lance fools like Major Hassan or the Tsaranev brothers. I think we have Bush’s robust response to thank for that and to be fair Obama’s drone campaign and having the persistence to kill bin Laden – even as he failed to recognize the long term general threat to the West. Pretending that the MB in Egypt or the Ghouls of Benghazi were our friends was a florid postcolonial delusion worthy of an Ivy League professor. (And I ought to know – I graduated from the same English department that later lionized Edward Said and his student Barack Obama)

    We also have General Petraeus to thank for comprehensively defeating the very people who have now apparently undone all his work – to say nothing of the lives our soldiers gave in that effort. I don’t actually believe they died in vain because now both the jihadis and, even our leaders if they make the effort to remember, know that we can defeat the holy warriors if we put our minds to it. I think Maliki carries a lot of the blame, and it is hard to believe that if there was a significant US presence in Iraq that ISIS would have been able to roll up Western iraq as they did. So we have let the jihadis make a comeback and we will have to deal with that in the future. Perhaps they will feel strong enough to attack the US again or perhaps they have learned their lesson and will just consolidate their power in their caliphate. We know from the Iranian experience that religious zealots can hold power through totalitarian means well past their use by date. Carter gave us the Shiite tyranny in Iran and now Obama has given us a Sunni tyranny in Syria-Iraq. Both will nuke up if they can. Perhaps a future American administration will finally notice that the Kurds are about the only sane folks in the region and act accordingly.

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