After 12 years of US setbacks, Obama joins the search for an Iraq strategy

America has been groping for a successful strategy in Iraq for more than a decade, but the realities on the ground keep getting in the way. 

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
President Obama speaks during his meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April 14, 2015.

President Obama conceded Monday that the US does not yet have a "complete strategy" for helping Iraq to defeat the self-styled Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS. 

His hawkish critics pounced. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor who is considering another run for the White House, said in a statement that "if I were Commander-in-Chief, it would not take nine months to work with our military leaders to develop a complete strategy to destroy ISIS." 

Writing in the Washington Post, Jennifer Rubin griped: "The president won’t respond until media criticism becomes too loud to ignore. He dawdled coming up with a plan. He then launches a half-hearted effort or in the case of the red line in Syria, no effort at all. The situation becomes dire. And we begin the cycle again."

With challengers for the presidency lining up, expect more promises of strategies to "defeat" the Islamic State and restore stability to Iraq. Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida republican, says his strategy would involve sending more troops; getting Turkey, Jordan and Egypt into the fight; and preventing regional instability. And he wants the US to show more "leadership."

For the past 12 years, the US has had a variety of strategies for Iraq. One was to invade the country and hopefully be greeted as liberators by a grateful populace. Another was to disband the Iraqi army and assist in purging tens of thousands of functionaries who served Saddam Hussein's regime (the effect was to create a core of angry people willing to join an insurgency.) The US then developed a counter-insurgency strategy, and after that the troop surge, both of which were designed to create the space for warring Iraqis to forge a new political compact to live together. 

Then there was the US strategy to defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq. Many of its members were killed or captured. Yet today, AQI's successor organization, IS, is enjoying far more success than its predecessor ever did. 

Before leaving office, President George W. Bush signed an agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki under which US troops would leave the country by 2012. And parallel to this strategy was the the multibillion dollar, multiyear effort to build a new Iraqi Army. 

Counting the cost

By any fair measure, all of these US efforts in Iraq have been failures. 

The new Iraqi Army, it turned out, was loaded with officers promoted based on loyalty to Shiite political parties rather than merit – and "ghost" soldiers not required to train or fight in exchange for sharing their salaries with superiors. That was a key reason the Islamic State army so handily defeated the Iraqi military in Mosul, the country's second-largest city, a year ago, and why it holds it today. The recent fall of Ramadi, a provincial capital about 70 miles west of Baghdad, was another example. Meanwhile, the military vacuum is filled by Shiite militias, many of whose members participated in bloody purges of Sunnis in Baghdad and other cities a few years ago. 

While the US surge achieved its short-term objective of tamping down Iraq's sectarian civil war, long-term stability wasn't achieved. Why? Iraq's political leaders, most importantly members of Iraq's Shiite Arab majority, weren't interested in political reconciliation. Leaders like Maliki were eager to relegate Sunni Arabs to second class as payback for the brutal treatment of their community during Saddam's reign.

As a result, Bush and Obama could goad Iraqi politicians about the need for inclusiveness and justice, but had no power to force them to make the compromises that might have helped Iraq prevent the current crisis.

Training and inclusion

Obama touched on this point yesterday. "We don't yet have a complete strategy because it requires commitments on the part of the Iraqis." He said the Pentagon is still drawing up a training plan for Iraqi soldiers and police. "We want to get more Iraqi security forces trained, fresh, well equipped, and focused. We're reviewing a range of plans for how we might do that, essentially accelerating the number of Iraqi forces that are properly trained and equipped and have a focused strategy and good leadership."

The US spent years training and equipping Iraq's military. It didn't work last time. Obama's administration is hoping that the gravity of the situation will prod a major change in behavior by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who hails from the same political party as Maliki but is often described as less sectarian in his outlook.

In his prepared remarks, Obama used the world "inclusive" four times. "As long as the international coalition sustains its efforts, and as long as Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi government stay committed to an inclusive approach to gaining back territory from ISIL and then instituting governance that is inclusive and serves the people, I’m absolutely confident that we will succeed."

There's been a decade of such comments from US officials and politicians about Iraq. In 2007, President Bush said of Maliki, "I believe that he understands that there needs to be serious reconciliation." No one believes that about him now.

Maybe this time is different. But if it's not, the best laid strategies may not amount to more than all of America's previous best laid strategies.

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