Barack Obama established his political bona fides with his early rejection of the Iraq war as a little-known Illinois state senator. And that position arguably propelled him through the 2008 Democratic primary and on to the presidency.
But now the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq bears almost nothing but political downside for the president. The prospect of using limited air strikes or other military intervention to tamp down an Islamist revolt will almost surely find public opposition.
The reasons? Because the war was unpopular, there are no good options, and Obama is riding a significant losing streak on foreign policy.
All of which makes re-engaging in Iraq a very tough political sell.
Opinions on Obama’s handling of international affairs have long been a brighter spot than his rating on many domestic issues — as well as his overall approval rating. But a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found his ratings in this area sinking to a new low. Just 41 percent approved of his job on international affairs, down six points in three months and currently five points below his overall approval rating.
Layered on top of Obama’s weakness on foreign affairs is the long-standing unpopularity of the war in Iraq. As of March 2013, just 38 percent said the costs of the war were worth the effort and 58 percent said they were not.
The war has been especially unpopular among Democrats nearly since the beginning, while Republicans have been more supportive. It is unlikely that a decision by Obama to use military force in Iraq would suddenly find favor among Democrats or maintain favor among Republicans.
The deep unpopularity of the war is punctuated by Obama’s highly popular decision to withdraw troops in 2011. Seventy-eight percent supported this decision overall, with as many as 58 percent of Republicans supporting it. That’s a remarkably high level of GOP support for anything with Obama’s name attached to it.
Ever since then, though, foreign policy has been a very tough slog for Obama. And indeed, the past year is riddled with examples of Obama getting tough marks for his handling of various issues.
First there was the whole "red line" strategy in Syria, which eventually led Obama to ask Congress to authorize limited missile strikes against the Syrian government. The American people — along with Congress — were not on board. Here's where they stood in September, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll:
Eventually, of course, Obama secured a deal under which Syria would promise to turn over its chemical weapons. The whole issue of military strikes was tabled, and Congress never voted. Still, as of January, Americans were — on balance — unhappy about the whole episode.
In that same January poll, we tested Obama's approval on Iran, with which the administration has participated in the first talks between the two countries in decades. Those talks yielded a six-month deal under which Iran would scale back its uranium enrichment program in exchange for an easing of sanctions.
Despite the administration cautiously hailing its diplomatic progress, the American people — again — were not impressed.
Fast forward to the whole Russia-Ukraine situation. The reaction for the administration here was much less foot-on-the-pedal than with Syria, as Russia was basically able to annex Crimea without much fuss. The administration's response was to rally around its NATO allies and issue plenty of stern warnings that Russia shouldn't go any further. Even this more hands-off approach, though, was not good enough for the American people. As of April:
More recently, there was the Bowe Bergdahl prisoner swap, in which five Taliban prisoners were traded for the lone American prisoner of war. Soon, though, news of Bergdahl's apparent desertion prior to being captured colored the whole deal, and people started thinking the price paid was too high.
Overall, more Americans disapprove (51 percent) than approve (39 percent). But as we've argued before, it's actually quite a bit worse than that for the administration. That's because, when people really think about Bergdahl's apparent desertion, they're clearly against the deal, 63-28.
Obama's foreign policy calling card, of course, was his pledge to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's done both — eventually — and Americans feel good about his plan to draw down troops in Afghanistan, supporting it by a huge margin of 77-19.
Despite this, though, Afghanistan still isn't a point of strength on Obama's foreign policy record, with Americans evenly split as of this month's Post-ABC poll.
As of today, it seems that even with the foreign policy issues on which Obama could please the American people, he's not. Foreign policy has become a liability for him, and he can't win.
And when you combine that with a pretty thankless task ahead in Iraq, it's a perfect recipe for something very few people will like or support.