Cynthia M. Allen: Absent foreign policy exacerbated crisis in Iraq

06/23/2014 12:00 AM

06/20/2014 6:00 PM

As we consider the fall of Mosul, Iraq, to terrorists and the threat they pose to Baghdad, we must concede: We had been warned.

Just months after the impact of the U.S.-led surge in Iraq was being realized, then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker delivered these prescient words at a joint hearing of Congress:

“I am certain that abandoning or drastically curtailing our efforts (in Iraq) will bring failure, and the consequences of such a failure must be clearly understood.… It could well invite the intervention of regional states.… The gains made against al-Qaida and other extremist groups could easily evaporate, and they could establish strongholds to be used as safe havens for regional and international operations.”

What Crocker understood even then was that as a fledgling democracy, Iraq would remain vulnerable to existential threats posed by extremism, without a continued U.S. presence and a robust foreign policy in the region.

Yet headlines this month have looked much as they did in 2007, anticipating the nation’s collapse.

The early and manifold errors of the Bush administration in Iraq should not be forgotten, even as experienced and resolute leaders, including Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, formulated and executed a counterinsurgency policy that pacified many violent parts of the country.

Their eventual success was imperfect, but it was also unimaginable. And when the last U.S. troops crossed the Kuwaiti border in December 2011, they left behind what President Obama called “a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.”

Whether or not that was true, what they most certainly did not leave behind was a residual force, as was recommended by American military advisers and diplomats, and – in spite of reports that leadership in Iraq was intransigent on the issue – desired by Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and by Sunni and Kurdish political leaders.

Critics have noted that the Obama administration’s failure to secure an agreement with the Iraqis on the status of forces was politically expedient. It was, yet it is not solely to blame for Iraq’s perilous state.

The administration’s absence of a coherent policy in the Middle East, and Syria in particular, has played a role, too.

As Tikrit and Mosul were falling to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria after it crossed the Syrian border on the way to Baghdad, Robert Ford, Obama’s former ambassador to Syria, wrote in the New York Times that the U.S. failure to support moderate forces in Syria has given extremists the kind of “safe haven” about which Crocker warned.

After 30 years in the foreign service, he was compelled to resign, finding it “ever harder to justify our policy” in Syria.

The “policy” to which he refers is a misnomer. In Syria as in Iraq, the U.S. has none – an inconvenient fact that has more to do with the deteriorating situation in Iraq than most armchair historians have been willing to admit.

New America Foundation scholar Douglas Ollivant explains how ISIS “has its roots in Iraq but came to full maturity in Syria,” where the dearth of effective U.S. engagement has allowed it to flourish.

Left unaddressed for years, the extremist threat has spilled over into Iraq, a nation that U.S. intelligence knew would long be susceptible to violence and increasingly beholden to Iran – where U.S. foreign policy has been equally flaccid.

If President Bush is guilty of overreaching, of entering Iraq without a plan for the post-Saddam era, then Obama is equally guilty of underestimating the power vacuum that exiting Iraq would leave behind.

His lack of a coherent policy to address instability in the greater Middle East has made the region ever more ripe for extremists – and that’s saying something.

For several years Obama has been claiming that the terrorist threat al-Qaida poses to the U.S. and the world has been neutralized. What is happening in Iraq, in Syria, in Pakistan and in North Africa proves not only that he is wrong, but also that this time, Obama’s policies, or lack thereof, are to blame.

After all, he had been warned.

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