Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq to haunt Obama’s legacy

History will judge US President Barack Obama’s foreign policy to have been a disastrous failure in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi 

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Al-Ahram Weekly

US President Barack Obama’s farewell speech to the UN General Assembly last week was hailed by many as well-crafted, uplifting and passionate. He tackled a wide range of key issues, from the integration of the global economy, climate change, and the Internet to migration, human rights, identity conflicts and the fight against the Ebola and Zika viruses.

Obama, heading into the last months of his presidency, also addressed head on some of his views about power and strategy, suggesting “a new approach” to global politics in the face of the worst international refugee crisis since the Second World War and a growing global terrorist threat.

By cataloguing these and other issues, the first African-American US president also played skillfully to shore up his legacy as one of the country’s greatest leaders, though many critics have seen Obama as being detached from reality in many parts of the world.

Strikingly, however, Obama did not even mention Iraq in his 5,000-word speech which lasted about 45 minutes, even though his administration is in the hot seat regarding the conflict in the country where some 5,000 US troops are deployed to help in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

One can hardly imagine that the history of the US war on Iraq can be written without Obama, who initially opposed the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, being seen as the US president who failed to wipe away the sins of the invasion and help Iraqis to rise from the ashes of the American occupation.    

The fact that Obama omitted Iraq from his speech, however, cannot conceal the fact that the United States is still trapped in the country and that the Obama administration is taking its share of responsibility for the Iraqi quagmire.

In reality, Iraq will remain on Obama’s agenda until the final moments of his presidency. Before his UN address, Obama met Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to discuss an impending offensive to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from IS terrorists.

Since the IS onslaught and seizure of nearly 30 per cent of Iraqi territory in summer 2014, the Obama administration has invested much effort and money to supporting the Iraqi security forces in driving back the terrorist group.

The Obama administration’s strategy in Iraq has largely been to blame for the striking and brutal advances by the militants, who also control massive amounts of territory across Syria and a “caliphate” from which they export terrorism to Europe and the United States.

When Obama became president in 2009, he took on the issue of the war on Iraq, left unresolved by his predecessor George W Bush, and defined a simple strategy to deal with it by pulling American forces out of the war-torn country.

The rush for the exit was in line with Obama’s anti-war stance when he was an Illinois state senator in 2002 and his presidential campaign pledge to withdraw US troops once he was in the White House.  

Bush also signed a troop withdrawal agreement with the Iraqi government in December 2008 shortly before he left office, ending the war he launched in March 2003.

The Obama administration’s course correction three years later, dropping the “no boots on the ground” strategy and beefing up US military assistance to Iraq in order to calm the nerves of a public made jittery after terror attacks in the US and Europe, succeeded in helping Iraq halt IS advances and eventually make significant gains in the war against the militants.

Now, as Obama’s term in office is drawing to a close, Washington wants the Iraqis to focus on taking back the strategically important city of Mosul before the end of the US elections, apparently in order to claim a significant victory that may help Democratic Party presidential elections candidate Hillary Clinton win the ballot.

In effect, Obama’s current strategy in Iraq is based on an end-of-term timetable and an attempt to serve his public image as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and anti-war president, though in reality he will end his term having had a longer tour of duty as a wartime president than all American presidents before him.

An overall assessment of Obama’s strategy in Iraq shows that the debacle which started with regime change in the country in the wake of a foreign invasion – Bush’s war – has continued. Thanks more than anything to Obama’s hotchpotch exit strategy, Iraq has been left in ruins and its existence threatened as a unitary state.

Iraq was left under the control of forces installed by the US Occupying Authority that were bent on building an ethnic and sectarian political regime in the country that was not committed to nurturing democracy and nation and state-building.  

Instead, a system of oligarchy and kleptocracy was created which swallowed the country whole and increased radicalisation and sowed instability. The result was a shaky political process and a dysfunctional governing system that was plagued by rampant corruption and inefficiency.

One of the worst consequences of Obama’s rush to leave Iraq before the establishment of an inclusive, effective and stable government in Baghdad has been the failure to rebuild Iraq as a democratic, federal and unified country, as it was expected to be after the fall of former president Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship following the US-led invasion.

The main reasons behind the lingering crisis in Iraq include the mess of a visibly failed state that was first created by the botched transition initiated by the US-led invasion in 2003 and then by Obama’s hasty exit.

Instability was the main result of having a weak and non-inclusive government in Baghdad whose legitimacy has been in ever-greater doubt. The setbacks in the transition and the failure of state- and nation-building efforts were largely responsible for the ensuing political instability and ethno-sectarian conflicts and violence.

Communal divisions and a power vacuum on the ground triggered by Obama’s politically expedient withdrawal rattled the country to the core and gave rise to IS and its seizure of vast amounts of territory in Iraq.

Iraq’s ethno-sectarian turmoil and ensuing geopolitical instability have also encouraged interference by its neighbours, turning the country into the site of another apparently endless regional proxy war.

The Obama administration’s approach in Iraq has failed to find ways to stop the harmful interference by Iraq’s neighbours and its often abysmal outcomes.  

Obama’s destructive policies in Syria, another glaring omission in his UN speech, and their expected failure to end terrorist threats can only be seen as another missed opportunity in ending the ongoing Iraqi tragedy.

Today, Obama’s opportunistic balancing act in Iraq, letting the Iraqis do the actual fighting against IS while making it appear as if it is a US war, will probably lead to the liberation of Mosul from IS, but it is doubtful that it will be able to defeat the terror group, let alone bring back peace to Iraq.

In other words, Obama has been ready to make the Iraqis the scapegoat for his own failure, something which the Bush administration also did to in order to avoid taking the blame for the fiasco in the country.

Despite the bragging about a UN-led stabilisation plan for the post-IS era, the Obama administration lacks a concrete strategy for national reconciliation and reconstruction of areas devastated by war in Iraq.

Indeed, a much-talked-about US-backed plan for decentralisation following IS defeat that includes a federated Sunni region(s) and expanding Kurdish territorial gains could be a recipe for breaking up Iraq into smaller ethnic and sectarian entities.

If Obama’s Iraq strategy were put in a nutshell, it would be seen as an extension of Bush’s approach of using military power (though with variations) and avoiding the promotion of national reconciliation and nation-building, leaving Iraq in tatters.

There should be no doubt that Obama has missed a great opportunity to correct the terrible mistakes of his predecessor in Iraq and that he has failed to do so.

Obama will leave office in January 2017, but there is no need to wait for history to make its judgement. He will be remembered as having been responsible for the destruction of Iraq and of its national identity and unity.

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