How Iraq Became Obama’s War

The Iraq War helped Obama win the presidency, but now the problems we left behind endanger his legacy.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

It’s so familiar. A re-elected President finds himself buffeted by violence abroad and hostile political winds at home. Poll numbers drop; the midterm elections loom as a specter that threatens irrelevancy if not impotence in the last two years—“lame duckers” on steroids. And once again, the cry of “second term curse!” is heard in the land.

Which means it’s time to revisit an argument I offered just before Barack Obama was sworn in for that second-term: again and again, it turns out that the afflictions attacking a second-term Chief Executive are rooted in what happened in his first term. Only this time, those second-term woes threaten a “third-term” hope of another second-term President.

Let me explain. My case, which is spelled out in detail here, looks back at what bedeviled Presidents as the glow of their return to office faded. For Lyndon Johnson, it was the stealth escalation in Vietnam he plotted even as he ran as a peace candidate in 1964. For Nixon, it was the Watergate break-in, designed to filch political plans of his 1972 foes. For Clinton, it was Monica Lewinsky’s arrival at the White House during the government shutdown of 1995. For George W. Bush, it was the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the disastrous post-invasion fiasco.

And Obama? In that 2012 piece, I wrote that the first-term roots of second term trouble might come “mostly from abroad, where the potential for instability, violence and anti-American hostility could make presidential decisions look very bad. … Imagine Iraq exploding into a new civil war, or aligning itself with a still-governing Assad in Syria, or with Iran.”

The presidential decisions now undergoing very tough judgments include not just the decision to withdraw completely from Iraq, but the decision to keep Prime Minister Nouri-al-Maliki in power despite overwhelming evidence that he was assembling a sectarian Shiite state. Ali Khedery, who was at one time the longest-serving American in Iraq, has just published a lengthy, agonizing account of U.S. policy blindness. It follows the blistering critiques of American missteps by The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, one of the most experienced of American war journalists writing today.

These are not voices that were urging a US invasion of Iraq in 2003. They are not policy-makers and pundits whose mindless assurances and repeated misjudgments a decade ago make their credibility today … problematic.

It’s not Dick Cheney or Paul Wolfowitz or Bill Kristol that make the case against Obama’s first-term judgments; it’s the reality of what is happening, and what lay at the heart of the Administration’s decision-making. Obama won the 2008 Democratic nomination in good measure because he was the only candidate who had opposed the invasion in the first place. (It helped greatly that he was in the Illinois State Senate, and not the US Senate, when the vote was taken.) Extracting the United States from Iraq was one of the central tenets of his foreign policy.

It was an achievement often cited by him and his supporters in the case for his re-election.

Now, Obama’s case seems to be that if the Bush Administration had not gone into Iraq in the first place, none of this chaos would have happened. This is both true—and irrelevant to what happened when policy-making was in the hands of the Obama Administration. It looks like a grim example of the Law of Unintended Consequences—“when you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that our objective was to drain the swamp”—but what is happening now is happening on Barack Obama’s watch, as first-term judgments cloud his second term.

And what of that “third term” I mentioned? Well, twice before, Bill Clinton has looked for a Presidential campaign that would in effect reaffirm his legacy: in the 2000 campaign, when Al Gore distanced himself from the Clinton record in an attempt to inoculate himself from Clinton’s behavior; and in 2008, when the Democratic Party turned from a Clinton to a new face.

Now, with Senator/Secretary Clinton all but anointed, a disaster in Iraq threatens to make her tenure as Secretary of State a serious liability—possibly ending her husband’s third-term hopes … for the third time.