The Crisis Leadership of No-Drama Obama

Why re-drawing Iraq, not withdrawing from it, may be his legacy.

06.15.14 9:45 AM ET

When President Obama strode to the microphones on the South Lawn at midday Friday, Americans were primed for an important announcement about the crisis in Iraq. After all, the tectonic plates of history are shifting beneath our feet, as a major Sunni-Shiite rumble threatens to rip apart the Middle East.

Instead, the public heard the kind of thoughtful, nuanced, contingency-based analysis that Obama is known for behind closed doors, as if we had all been invited into the Situation Room.

Unfortunately for the president, our muscle memory expected something, anything, that might convey strong leadership in a crisis. Obama is now a victim of the paradox embedded in public attitudes on foreign policy and identified recently by the author Robert Kagan—that Americans may prefer a lesser role in the world, but they aren’t proud of it.

The president’s challenge for the next couple of years is to convince the public that he doesn’t actually want a reduced American role in global affairs, just a reduced military role. Indeed, Obama will likely need to dramatically increase the American diplomatic presence in the region, especially when it comes time—as it likely will—to carve up Iraq.

This will be seen at first as an embarrassing salvage operation, if not an outright defeat, because Obama can’t get away from our idealized notions of strength. There’s a big gap between the Gary Cooper image of our presidents that we carry around in our heads and what they can reasonably do in a messy, post-Cold War world.

Obama’s low-key response on Friday was reminiscent of what President Kennedy told Walter Cronkite about the South Vietnamese in 1963 not long before his assassination—that it was “their war to win or lose.” Such sentiments are rarely determinative; Kennedy’s came just months before President Johnson began sending 500,000 troops. Today’s Iraqi quagmire is more like Vietnam a decade later, though Shiite domination of the Baghdad area should prevent the kind of hasty exit from the U.S. embassy that we saw in 1975 in Saigon. 

In a speech last month at West Point, Obama limited the circumstances in which the U.S. would use force. But fancy doctrines and finely-calibrated words don’t mean much in a crisis, where all a president has is his ability to think through the complexities. Because Obama does so, his almost inevitable decision to use drones or bombers against aggressors from ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) will be more measured and considered and thus likely more effective.

As night follows day, Republicans have pounced. Instead of focusing on ISIS, they’ve predictably trained their fire on the president and, by extension, the United States. It’s as if the “Blame America first” tag that conservatives attached to liberal Democrats in the 1980s now fits the GOP. Sen. John McCain says Obama should fire his entire national security team. Mitt Romney, hosting a confab for potential 2016 candidates, suggested that Obama’s policy of “accommodation” had led to the crisis. House Speaker John Boehner charged that in recent weeks, as the ISIS gained strength, the president was “taking a nap.” 

In truth, Obama is neither inattentive nor in over his head. He is not a neo-isolationist or afraid to use lethal force abroad. (Just ask the targets of his hundreds of drone strikes). He is, instead, the same cool, calm, No Drama Obama who, as an Illinois state senator in 2003, bucked respectable opinion and opposed what he called a “dumb war” in Iraq. That resistance to foreign adventurism helped propel him to the presidency and keep him there. It’s no coincidence that in a nation weary of war he was the first man elected twice with absolute majorities since Dwight D. Eisenhower more than half a century ago.

It’s fitting that Obama’s views on the limits of U.S. military power flow from Eisenhower, who refused to be drawn into Vietnam when the French lost at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 or into Hungary when the Soviet Union invaded in 1956. Iraq is the 21st century’s Exhibit A of those limits. No wonder the Pentagon brass this week were overwhelmingly opposed to immediate military action. The same poor intelligence that offered little warning of the shocking capture of Mosul cannot yet be trusted to identify bombing targets or to predict with much accuracy where U.S. military involvement might yield benefits.

Amid the cable noise, it’s impossible to overstate just how little Obama cares about Republican criticism of his foreign policy. He is in no mood to hear I-told-you-so lectures from those who were on the wrong side of a war that has already led to the loss of 4,500 American lives and cost a trillion dollars, including $25 billion to bolster an Iraqi “army” hardly worthy of the name. It’s as if Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger were under attack in 1975 from Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy for not finishing the disastrous war the Democrats started.

What would McCain have done if he were president and had the foresight about the ISIS that he now claims? Add 100,000 new troops to the 35,000 we still have in the region? Bomb the Syrian border? It’s hard to imagine how the use of force a few weeks or months ago would have been any more than a Band-Aid for the Malaki government.

Of course it’s regrettable that the CIA once again missed the real story, blindsiding the president. But that hardly makes the new Iraqi civil war his fault, as the GOP chorus is claiming.

And Obama’s recent miscues are of little relevance to today’s mess. Yes, he was wrong not to arm moderate Syrian rebels earlier in their struggle against the Assad regime. It was worth a try, as he now realizes. And it’s true that the ISIS filled a power vacuum created by the war inside Syria. But Syrian moderates are fighting Assad, not the ISIS. And even if moderates had taken power from Assad with American help—a huge if—they would hardly have been able to discourage the ISIS from crossing the border into Iraq. Were they to somehow have such influence over the ISIS, it would by definition mean that many of these so-called “moderates” are actually like-minded Sunni extremists, just as Obama has feared. 

It’s not even clear the situation would be much different if U.S. forces hadn’t left Iraq, under terms negotiated by President Bush, in 2011. There was only so much multi-billion-dollar chewing gum and baling wire that could be applied to a country that fundamentally doesn’t want to be a country. Contrary to neocon analysis, our refusal to be drawn in again doesn’t auger a post-Iraq era where we won’t ever use force around the world—a new Vietnam Syndrome in which a generation of liberal Democrats sour on all assertions of American military power.

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The U.S. is simply getting more prudent about intervention. In their studies of 19th-century imperialism, the British historians Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher found that when the “client state” (South Vietnam or Iraq in our time) threatens to collapse, the major power feels forced to intervene. This allows the weaker power to call the tune in the relationship. After all we’ve been through in Iraq, Obama is rightly insistent that we reverse that dynamic. He wants the Maliki government in Baghdad to get its act together on genuine power-sharing before commencing U.S. military action. It’s the only leverage we have.

No one knows where this is all going, though dividing the country along the Sunni-Shiite-Kurdish lines Joe Biden proposed before becoming vice president seems an increasingly likely outcome. (Les Gelb calls the proposal “federalism,” with three strong local governments within a single nation.) In the century since Gertrude Bell, an intrepid administrator in the British army, drew the arbitrary borders of Jordan, Syria and Iraq, the impracticality of a multi-factional state like Iraq has only become more obvious.

The folly of the Iraq War is that we knew this going in. In 2003, even supporters of the invasion like Secretary of State Colin Powell invoked “the Pottery Barn rule—you break it, you own it.” We still have responsibilities there, especially to prevent chaos and to offer humanitarian assistance. But after a decade of blood and treasure, it’s their crockery again. 

Obama gets this. His aides have privately described the essence of the president’s pragmatic foreign policy as “We don’t do dumb stuff” (though they didn’t call it “stuff”).The problem going forward is that this approach is necessary but not sufficient. Beyond avoiding dumb stuff (like major military action), Obama needs to embrace smart, creative stuff—building, not destroying.

The president thought his legacy would include withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. By the time this plays out, he’s more likely to be remembered for inserting U.S. diplomats into Iraq, where they’ll revise Gertrude Bell and draw a new map of the region. It’s hard to imagine now, but that may come to represent the strong presidential leadership we all still crave.