Obama’s Policy Shifts Could End with U.S. Boots in Iraq
Policy + Politics

Obama’s Policy Shifts Could End with U.S. Boots in Iraq


President Obama continued his fast-paced evolution on Iraq Monday, announcing his support for a new prime minister, distancing himself from Nouri al-Maliki - a politician who until yesterday seemingly had the official backing of the White House. 

Iraqi President Fouad Massoum replaced Maliki, who has fanned the flames of the Sunni-Shiite divide that fuels Sunni militants fighting under the banner of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq with Haider al-Ibadi. This change was made in the hope that Maliki’s removal would create a political environment in Iraq and create a new cabinet, a move that would allow international partners to join the American fight against ISIS. 

Related: Iraq, Middle East Paying for Obama’s Miscalculation 

“I urge all Iraqi political leaders to work peacefully through the political process in the days ahead,” Obama said from Martha’s Vineyard.

“This new Iraqi leadership has a difficult task. It has to regain the confidence of its citizens by governing inclusively and by taking steps to demonstrate its resolve," he added. “The United States stands ready to support a government that addresses the needs and grievances of all Iraqi people.” 

Maliki called his removal unconstitutional, but it’s not likely to matter. Without backing from Washington, he holds no real power in the Iraqi government. 

Related: How the U.S. Allowed ISIS to Form a Terrorist Army 

Obama’s decision to withdraw support for Maliki is yet another instance of the president changing his stripes on Iraq. To date, the president has shifted policy on nearly every major issue on Iraq, including

- His support for the war. As a candidate, Obama was against the war, but as president, he begrudgingly accepted it. His decision to withdraw all American personnel was his attempt to disown the war, which created a vacuum where ISIS could grow. 

- As ISIS advanced toward the outskirts of Baghdad, Obama insisted that the American military would not get involved. Last week, as ISIS threatened genocide against Christians, he ordered American fighter jets to Iraq. 

- Obama had been critical of Maliki’s leadership, but the administration made no public statements to withdraw its support for him. Now, he’s persona non grata in Washington. 

These changes in policy raise questions about Obama’s insistence that American troops would not be on the ground in Iraq. He made the same claim today, saying that “there is no American military solution" in Iraq. Whether he will shift policy on this remains to be seen. 

Related: Top Marine to Obama: Get in the Fight 

Jumping Ship
Obama is now haunted by the consequences of his tepid command decisions in Syria and Iraq and hemmed in by his critics and supporters alike. 

Over the weekend, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina – two of Congress’s most dependable hawks – largely blamed Obama for his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq and his failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels for the rise of Islamist militants who have captured huge swaths of territory across the region. 

“Three years ago, Mr. President, you were told by your national security team, get involved, arm the rebels because this problem will grow,” Graham said on Fox News Sunday. 

“You said no. You made many, many bad bets. Your strategy is failing. You told us bin Laden is dead, we're safe. Since bin Laden has died, there are more terrorist organizations with more safe havens, with more money, with more weapons, and more capabilities to attack the homeland than there was before 9/11.” 

Rep. Peter T. King (R-NY), a member of the Homeland Security and Select Intelligence Committees, urged the president to escalate U.S., airstrikes against ISIS beyond the surgical strikes on behalf of Kurdish forces. “ISIS is a direct threat to the United States of America,” King told NBC’s Meet the Press. “They are more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11.” 

Related: If Kurds Fall, Chaos in Iraq and Abroad Will Follow 

Perhaps an even more stinging indictment came from a presumed ally, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who in a revealing interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic ventured beyond observations in her new book to characterize the administration’s – and Congress’s – inaction in Syria a “failure.” Clinton wrote in her memoir of her State Department years, Hard Choices, that she advocated behind the scenes for doing more to help Syrian rebels battle the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.   

“The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad—there were Islamists, there were secularists, there was everything in the middle—the failure to do that left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” Clinton said. 

With Clinton all but certain to seek the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, her comments appeared to be a first step in distancing herself from the president’s highly criticized foreign policy strategy. "Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle," Clinton said in a direct slap at Obama’s informal foreign policy rule of thumb. 

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