Shadow Government

Is Obama doubling down on a risky gamble in Iraq?

The confusion inherent in the Obama's approach to Iraq continues, according to this New York Times account.

From a short term perspective, the confusion hasn't seemed to matter much. August, which by some measures was the bloodiest month in Afghanistan, was an exceptionally low-cost month in Iraq. If one tabulated success in U.S. body counts, Obama's approach appears to be working for now.

The long term outlook is more worrying. According to several unnamed sources, military commanders are "livid" with President Obama's decision to authorize a plan that is resourced at a fraction of the level that the military considered to be the minimum -- and even that minimum  would only work "in extremis." Obama's approach appears to involve several multiples of risk beyond what the military consider prudent. Reportedly, even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued for a level of resources above what Obama appears to have authorized.

Reasonable people can disagree whether it makes national security sense for Obama to adopt such a risky path. For my part, I wish he had invested more effort in the Iraq file, especially working more closely with Prime Minister Maliki to push the process towards an outcome that is more favorable to American (and, I would argue, Iraqi national) interests.  

The part that mystifies me is why his team thinks it makes political sense to have taken this course. His administration has already pocketed as much political benefit as there is to be wrung from Bush's surge -- and the media has generously refrained from pointing out that whatever positive developments came in Iraq came because of policies Obama and Biden tried strenuously to thwart in 2007. Given that the administration has already claimed Iraq as a great achievement, why take so risky a course now, one that could result in a great unraveling during the presidential campaign?

There is no domestic political pressure to speak of demanding a reckless withdrawal from Baghdad. The cost savings of denying the military the resources they say they need is trivial compared to the stakes. For that matter, the amount of time and effort it would have taken Obama to invest in Iraq policy so as to achieve greater progress with Maliki was probably trivial, too. Yet it seems that when it comes to Iraq, Obama is determined to do whatever is less than the minimum.

This is a strategy that depends heavily on luck. For the sake of U.S. national security, I hope Obama is lucky on Iraq. If he is not, at some point his choices could produce outcomes that are seen to be Obama's doing, and not merely the legacy he was handed. That point may well be this winter.

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