For Obama, Iraq looms large again

When asked Thursday whether the United States is considering drone strikes or any other action to stop the insurgency in Iraq, President Obama says he's looking at all options. (Reuters)

President Obama inherited two wars on taking office, one he called “dumb” to his political benefit and the other he described more urgently as “the war we need to win.”

It is the dumb one today that poses the most immediate challenge to his national security priorities and to his foreign policy legacy.

Iraq is splintering, and with it both the original neo-conservative belief that a sectarian dictatorship could be made quickly into a stable democracy and Obama’s hands-off approach to the wider region.

The Islamist insurgents now seizing cities across Iraq’s battered north grew up in Syria, whose civil war Obama has steadfastly avoided despite the grave risks it poses to the region’s delicate stability.

Those threats of a wider regional war have been given shape. In recent days, armed Islamists spanning the Syrian border have seized Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and a string of Sunni Muslim towns, long estranged from the Shiite-led central government, that run south to the edge of Baghdad. Turkey and Iran may intervene to protect their political and security interests, and Iraq’s Kurds have moved into the long-contested city of Kirkuk, which was abandoned by the Iraqi army.

Now a president elected to end the United States’ wars faces demands, in Washington and in Baghdad, to rejoin the one he long condemned and had thought was over. The expected line of his presidential legacy — Obama as the commander in chief who brought to a close the nation’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, conflicts — is threatened now to include an asterisk.

“My team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance to them,” Obama said Thursday in an Oval Office appearance with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. “I don’t rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter.”

How the United States ends its wars, those that have followed the Sept. 11 attacks and defined a decade of U.S. foreign policy, has been a point of debate in recent days.

Within months, the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan is scheduled to end, bringing to an official close the United States’ longest war, even if several thousand troops will remain. Obama’s controversial decision this month to trade a group of Taliban detainees for captured U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl was framed as part of an unsatisfying end-of-war process.

But it is how Obama ended the Iraq war 21 / 2 years ago — and the decisions he has made since then to avoid new conflicts — that has been revived with the most sustained period of organized violence in Iraq since the U.S. departure.

The Obama administration has stepped up shipments of military hardware to Iraq in recent months, including assault rifles, transport helicopters and other equipment.

How Obama will decide now on Iraqi requests for more direct assistance, including U.S. airstrikes, may have an effect not only on the insurgents’ advance but also on the prospects for Obama’s party in the midterm elections in November.

“Should American men and women be fighting in Iraq today and is that the right decision for our national security interests?” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said to reporters Thursday, a message that resonates with a war-weary public being challenged to welcome home its veterans with understanding and employment.

“We cannot have U.S. forces around the world in armed conflicts without end — it’s simply not a wise approach to our national security interests,” Carney said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Thursday that what is transpiring in Iraq represents a “colossal failure of American security policy.”

The popularity of Obama’s management of foreign policy — an area of political strength in his first term — has declined in recent years.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted this month — after Obama’s confrontation with Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine and worsening civil strife in Syria — found that 41 percent of Americans support his foreign policy. The figure is five percentage points below his overall job-approval rating.

For the White House, the problem in such numbers is that, judged issue by issue, a majority of Americans consistently approve of the policies Obama has carried out overseas. The low rating in many ways suggests an overall lack of faith that he is effectively projecting U.S. leadership abroad.

What is certainly true is that Obama is in line with public opinion when it comes to war, which renders any decision to engage directly again in Iraq, the most politically fraught U.S. conflict since Vietnam, even more difficult to make in an election year.

A majority of Americans turned against the Iraq war several years ago, responding in surveys then that the war was no longer worth fighting. A Post-ABC News poll in March 2013 found that only 38 percent of respondents thought the war was worth its costs.

For the United States, the Iraq war has been over since the end of 2011, when Obama, fulfilling a campaign pledge, withdrew all U.S. forces after nine years of combat.

He had been unable to secure an agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite leader close to Iran, to grant U.S. troops immunity from prosecution beyond the end of that year. The result made leaving behind any U.S. forces impossible — and it was, in many ways, exactly the result the White House wanted.

Many conservatives, politically invested since the George W. Bush administration in a successful outcome in Iraq, criticized the president for a precipitous departure. But the public welcomed the move. A Post-ABC News poll at the time found that 78 percent of respondents supported the decision to withdraw all U.S. troops.

Administration officials at the time celebrated advances of the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, saying that violence had declined sharply nationwide since they had taken the lead. On the battlefield today, those security forces are abandoning posts across the north, from Tikrit to Kirkuk.

In announcing the full troop withdrawal, Obama hedged against future days of car bombings, sectarian attacks and political strife. He warned that “there will be some difficult days ahead for Iraq.”

“And the United States will continue to have an interest in an Iraq that is stable, secure and self-reliant,” he said.

Obama’s commitment to those interests is being tested now.

In a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., last month, he defended his record in office, calling the United States stronger than ever before and his critics out-of-step advocates of more war.

At the time, he announced a $5 billion fund to assist other countries in combating terrorism, an idea he underscored again Thursday in the case of Iraq.

“We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time, but what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security,” Obama said. “And that is a long and laborious process, but it’s one that we need to get started.”

Whether a left-behind contingent of American troops would have prevented the crisis is unclear, and Carney said Thursday that no U.S. ground forces will be deployed to Iraq.

In his remarks, Obama urged Maliki and Iraq’s other sectarian leaders to come together against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, overcoming years of political deadlock and conflict to hold off an al-Qaeda affiliate metastasizing in the heart of the Middle East.

“It’s fair to say that in our consultations with the Iraqis there will be some short-term, immediate things that need to be done militarily, and our national security team is looking at all the options,” Obama said. “But this should be also a wake-up call for the Iraqi government.”

Post polling manager Peyton M. Craighill and polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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