Obama's Iraq policy

That curious feeling of deja-vu

Peter Harling & Alex Simon

One of the greatest ironies of Barack Obama’s presidency is the extent to which he is repeating, rather than correcting, his predecessor’s mistakes in Iraq. Obama originally defined himself as the anti-Bush, chastising reckless foreign policy, vowing to bring the US’ military adventures overseas to a close. In general, he framed his international posture as the opposite of Bushism — rational and realist, grounded in narrowly defined national interests rather than ideological whims. Iraq happens to offer a spectacular counterpoint. Not only are current policies replicas of past ones, they are leaving Iraq – 13 years into the war and eight years after Obama’s promise to end it – in a worse state than when his administration took over.

Of course, Bush’s original sin was the 2003 invasion itself—a reckless, hubristic affair that sent Iraq spinning into a state of blood-soaked anarchy. Here, indeed, Obama lurched in the opposite direction, opting for a precipitate withdrawal that – rather than end his predecessor’s war – allowed a half-stabilized Iraq to quickly backslide into chaos. Beyond this point, however, the pictures begin to align, and a feeling of déjà vu sets in.

Two particular commonalities stand out. First is a focus on military victory in a political vacuum, with no apparent strategy for the day after. In 2003, Bush et al. made the fatal error of supposing that toppling Saddam would be the end of the story, rather than its preamble; evict the tyrant, demolish his power structure, cry out “mission accomplished,” and freedom would reign. Today, a similar process is underway: the Obama White House may have no illusions about a democratic future for Iraq, but it is nonetheless fully absorbed in a headlong rush for tactical victory – this time in the Islamic State-held city of Mosul – despite a total and unapologetic lack of preparation for what will come next.

Second, and closely related, is Washington’s continuing failure to use its enormous financial and military leverage to push for basic reforms that could render Iraq’s political and security institutions sustainable in the long-term. Politically, both White Houses have watched as the government in Baghdad sinks further into sectarianism, corruption and incompetence, refusing to push back against this trend for fear of compromising short-term security goals. Militarily, Obama – like Bush before him – has responded to the dismal performance of Iraq’s regular army by propping up a patchwork of elite counterterror units and paramilitary groups that, while effective in the short-term, are no substitute for a functioning military.

These expedient practices have paid dividends with respect to fleeting military gains, but they also ensure that the Iraqi state and all of its components will continue to decay. The result has been a cyclical pattern in which rounds of wanton violence leave the country ever more gutted, and recovery ever more remote.

Surging toward what?

The previous such round unfolded under the auspices of “the surge,” during the final years of the Bush-era. Before leaving office, the administration was keen to improve its legacy by redressing deteriorating dynamics on the ground. To this end, the US ramped up its military engagement; consolidated elite troops within the Iraqi military to spearhead key offensives; and embraced a system of Sunni paramilitary forces (the so-called “Awakening”) that offered the staying power necessary to “hold” liberated areas. In 2007, it focused on stabilizing Baghdad and pacifying Sunni governorates. In early 2008, it stepped in to save the Iraqi army – and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki – from disaster, when Shiite militias surged themselves and Iraqi troops dissolved in the southern city of Basra.

The boat didn't rock. It rotted

By this point, the deep flaws bedeviling Iraq’s political structure were perfectly apparent. Corruption was rife, and certain organs of the state were being refashioned into sectarian death squads. The unspoken belief, however, was that the whole apparatus was so frail that fiddling with it would risk seeing it crumble like a house of cards. So Maliki was allowed to paint what was almost a catastrophic defeat as a crowning victory, after which point his government’s corruption and sectarian excesses would increase exponentially.

As the Obama administration came in, the same mentality – don’t rock the boat – prevailed. Washington turned a blind eye when Maliki disbanded the Sunni proxies integral to the struggle against extremist armed groups. It saw to it that Maliki, who lost to Eyad Allawi in the 2010 elections, was reappointed, contrary to the letter and spirit of a constitution the US helped create. It continued to fund and train the praetorian units that Maliki diverted to serve his own petty, increasingly factional aims. The US kept silent when Baghdad encouraged the rise of Shiite militias; brutally suppressed Sunni protests; allowed corruption to skyrocket and corrode vital institutions, including the army; and multiplied inflammatory political arrests.

The Islamic State, naturally, didn’t jump out of the blue to take over one third of Iraq’s territory in 2014. Rather, abuses in Baghdad – tacitly accepted and financially supported by Washington – created, slowly but surely, the conditions leading up to an entirely foreseeable breakdown. The boat didn’t rock: It rotted. When it started to founder, its captain Maliki was replaced by Haider Abadi; the US again raced to the rescue and shored up the sinking vessel, but virtually nothing has been done to prevent a repeat.

Indeed, although the style of leadership has changed from decidedly authoritarian to benign and inept, there has been no movement on any of the long-awaited laws viewed as indispensable to progress (on, for example, decentralization). Meanwhile, and at a time when the Iraqi political class has earned the near universal hatred of its population, Washington continues to bail out a flailing government with unconditional support.

Militarily, the situation today is a mirror image of that in the final two years of the Bush presidency. Again, a foundering regular army is augmented by elite counterterror units and paramilitaries, although this time around the latter are Shia rather than Sunni; are often propped up by Iran rather than Washington; and are far more powerful and autonomous than their predecessors in the Awakening.

The US is the glue that holds it all together

And again, the United States is the glue that holds it all together. While the current American role is far from the full-fledged occupation of old, US forces have quietly resumed their role as an indispensable component of the Iraqi military apparatus, without which the entire structure would promptly collapse (again). Indeed, Iraqi forces would barely function at all if Washington weren’t assuming all the support roles that for years have been de-prioritized in favor of churning out fighters to meet the latest emergency. On top of logistics, transport, procurement, training, communications, airpower and intelligence, the US, through embedded “advisors,” also provides much of the decentralized command, coordination and motivational handholding necessary to win this asymmetric war.

Clear, hold, repeat

The result is a peculiar spectacle in which the familiar “clear, hold, build” triptych of American counterinsurgency doctrine is fulfilled only partially, and by a fragile mash-up of disparate actors. American aerial and logistical support allows elite units of the army to “clear” territory held by the Islamic State; “holding” is largely relegated to an increasingly powerful, semi-institutionalized array of Shiite militias (which include, incidentally, US-designated terror groups, and whose worst excesses this administration has a penchant for whitewashing); and “building” is essentially kicked down the road, expected to fall into place after the enemy’s defeat, despite the utter scarcity of resources and political will. Local constituencies play an improvised, token role at best, in stark contrast to the period from 2007-8, when they led the charge.

This failure when it comes to the “build” stage is nothing new; indeed, “nation-building” has become a dirty word, connoting Washington’s hubris and overreach. Yet without some amount of sustained (and sustainable) building, the American role in Iraq will amount—in the final estimation—to the country’s repeated destruction.

If Obama’s objective was to bring closure to the US by pulling out from Iraq, we are certainly not seeing progress toward a country that could fend for itself. It is no coincidence that the Iraqi army collapsed in 2014, in the wake of the US drawdown in previous years; the Bush administration only went as far as consolidating a makeshift, expedient national army held together by militia allies and, above all, US troops. The situation today is, if anything, unmistakably worse. The campaign against Islamic State has ravaged the country to an extent previously unseen; the political situation is at ground zero; and the regular army is a skeleton force whose authority is being challenged by an array of communal militias, some of which are remote-controlled by Iran. Although these groups could achieve little on their own, they are taking the credit and gaining tremendously in legitimacy within Shiite communities.

Generally speaking, Obama’s policy is in line with Bush’s in its reluctance to genuinely take ownership, its quest for the fastest way out, and its consequent preference for quick fixes and expedient measures. The end result has been 13 years of kicking this can down the road, with no end in sight, and with the Iraqi people sinking deeper into misery every step of the way. It is tragic that this administration would have contributed its two mandates to such a futile exercise.

The end result has been 13 years of kicking this can down the road

The irony runs deep. Today, Washington’s minimalist attitude is premised on a narrative of powerlessness – the notion that there is very little Americans can do in the face of unfolding developments, rooted in ancient hatreds (and prior administrations).  This was meant to be the sensible rejoinder to Bush-era hubris. But the neocons sported a similar view, only more sanguine: they ambitioned to unleash dynamics they saw no need to manage, because these dynamics would lead, inevitably, to the spread of their own value-system as the natural End of History. One vision is hardly more absurd than the other; both consist in shunning responsibility for policy-making. Part of the Obama administration’s challenge in Iraq is, precisely, that local officials themselves have adopted the language of helplessness, arguing that all things they are elected and paid to redress are, in the final analysis, beyond their ability to change.

Seventeen years and counting

Of course, this recourse to fatality is a tool of convenience, whether in Baghdad or in Washington. The US is shaping events on the ground, both consciously (by galvanizing the struggle against the Islamic State) and unconsciously (by letting everything else slip). It is indispensable militarily even to militias sponsored by Iran, a neighbor who enjoys formidable and largely unused political clout. Increasingly, the Kurds have virtually no one else to turn to but the US. The state itself is only saved from insolvency – a consequence of extraordinary corruption laid bare by dropping oil prices – because the White House is using its muscle within the international system of financial governance.

Within Iraqi society itself, the US – which is no longer seen primarily as an encroaching hegemon – arguably enjoys more soft-power than at any point since 2003, and conceivably more than any other external player. Iraqis, fatigued and disabused, would respond positively to a US policy that does more than defend, bankroll, and legitimize a political system that has been bleeding a rich country dry. A generous package of financial incentives, conditioned on a clear-cut reform roadmap, would go a long way to both leverage and manage the popular frustration that has been brewing in the streets. Allowed to grow, those sentiments likely will rock Iraq’s counterfeit “stability” more than the Islamic State ever did.

Obviously, this administration will stay the course until it can walk out the door, handing over a poisonous file it hoped to “close” with the bare minimum of engagement. The next would be well advised to learn from its predecessors’ cumulative, iterative failures; specifically, this means avoiding the trap of an Iraq policy that seeks to hasten departure in ways that guarantee a return.

The game-changer lies in accepting, however difficult this may be, that any realistic timeframe is longer than any American would like. The incoming team could give itself, for instance, the whole four years of its first mandate to move Iraq from its current state of wretched dependence to a place where it could function more or less on its own. Building a small but sustainable army; pushing through core administrative reforms; shifting the economy from pillage and patronage to a modicum of normalcy; devising ways of employing a disenfranchised youth elsewhere than in militias; all of the above are essential to Iraq’s viability as a state, and none will happen within months, nor as an automatic consequence of defeating the Islamic State.

Both Iraqis and Americans, in their own ways, are keen to see their unfortunate relationship come to a happy denouement. Both societies have paid an inordinate price for the shallowness and incompetence of politicians. They deserve to be told what it will take, exactly, to write the final chapter, rather than continue to be spun the line of a mysterious, undefined epilogue just around the corner. Four years is a reasonable timespan that would cap the US’ misadventures in Iraq at a staggering 17 years. The only alternative is to continue counting.

4 October 2016

Peter Harling is the founder & director of Synaps. He lived 7 years in Iraq, and his latest visit was in May 2016. Alex Simon is a consultant with Synaps, currently based in Washington.


Illustration credit: Obama in Iraq 2008 by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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