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.