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Obama’s campaign rivals resurface on Iraq

Why Hillary Clinton and John McCain are criticizing the president's foreign policy decisions

August 12, 2014 6:00AM ET

President Barack Obama can’t seem to catch a break from the people he defeated on the way to the White House. First came Sen. John McCain, who accused him — not for the first time — of having no understanding of what he’s up against in the Middle East. Now comes former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, suddenly sharpening her differences with Obama over Syria and his wary stance on intervention in general.  

The president’s former rivals are picking on him even though he has taken quick, decisive and reasoned action in a foreign policy crisis. He has ordered airstrikes and humanitarian aid and is arming our Kurdish allies. He has said he will not let the Islamic State (IS) “create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq.” What McCain seems to want — and what Obama hasn’t offered — is a vow to annihilate the brutal jihadist group, which Obama describes as “barbaric terrorists.”

That’s a good call. Why give the “barbaric terrorists” another rallying point against the Great Satan? And why pledge to go into Iraq with overwhelming force if Iraq is still so dysfunctional that the only way to beat back the IS is to stay there and fight for another few decades?

It makes perfect sense for Obama to say that U.S. assistance in Iraq is contingent on a functioning coalition Iraqi government. If the U.S. keeps bailing out the politicians who are supposed to be leading Iraq, there’s no reason for them to even try to become a stable, reliable partner. And without such a partner, there is no U.S. exit strategy that doesn’t leave Iraq in chaos.

It also makes sense for Obama to hint subtly at the potential scope of this undertaking rather than to unleash bombastic rhetoric that the IS can use as a recruiting and motivational tool. With measured phrases such as “engage in some offense” and “deal with the broader crisis,” along with the characterization of IS engagement as “a long-term project,” Obama implies the potential for broader goals and action without pouring gasoline on the flames. 

Devastate the IS?

Granted, Obama's choice of language falls far short of the hardline 'good vs. evil,' 'dead-or-alive' rhetoric of the George W. Bush White House. But that doesn’t mean Obama won’t try to decimate the IS, if and when he decides that is necessary.

In an alphabet soup of a tweet on Saturday, Sen. John McCain said that Obama “still doesn’t seem to understand the nature of ISIS [an acronym for the group’s previous name] threat to US, as his CIA, DHS, FBI, DNI & DOJ leaders have warned.” He added Sunday on CNN, “There is no policy. And so therefore, there’s no strategy, so therefore, things are going very, very badly.”

By Monday, after news came out that the U.S. would provide the Kurds with arms, McCain was feeling a bit better. But he will never stop trying to convince Americans that they made not just a wrong choice for president in 2008 but a dangerous one.

Clinton, already enmeshed in preparations for a probable 2016 run after serving as Obama’s secretary of state — a consolation prize after losing the 2008 Democratic nomination to him — abruptly severed that alliance with a pointed reference to what she sees as a bad decision by Obama. “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force” to counter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled,” she told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic. She also belittled an offhand phrase Obama aides have used to distill his cautious foreign policy approach. “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” 

A president could do worse than to abide by ‘Don’t do stupid stuff.’

Obama’s “policy” — admittedly coarse shorthand — recalls “It’s the economy, stupid,” an organizing principle that was considered brilliant in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign against George H.W. Bush. Asked by Goldberg to describe her organizing principle, Hillary Clinton replied, “Peace, progress and prosperity.”

That is a cliché, and those are goals to which all presidents aspire. Obama has chosen to pursue them by keeping the country out of most conflicts and giving the military, the federal budget, the economy and our battered national psyche time to recover from the Great Recession and the combined drains of Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Pugnacious interventions

McCain, Clinton and Obama have very different ideas about how to measure and respond to threats and about the ultimate helpfulness of military interventions and pugnacious rhetoric. But McCain and Clinton can’t ignore another reality: Obama beat both of them in 2008 in large part by running against the Iraq War, which he called a “dumb war.”

Conservative columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times gives Obama credit for rational decision-making on Libya, Syria and Iraq and holds out the possibility that he might be “thinking strategically instead of just conducting a humanitarian drive-by.” That’s most likely what Obama has been hinting at with his vague references to a lengthy time frame and going on offense. The impression was reinforced by a bland White House readout of a call between Obama and French President François Hollande. The two men, it said, “agreed to work together on a longer-term strategy to counter” the IS.

Obama says he wants to “preserve a space” for Iraq “to do the hard work” of forming a government its people and military can trust. Iraq may never have that type of government — and it’s possible that the U.S. will have to go after the IS the way it went after Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. But in Obama’s view, now is not the time for that.

On the left and in the general public, Obama’s reticence is welcome. Recent polls confirm that, like Obama, the public would like to see Iraq receding rapidly in the rearview mirror. More than half the respondents said the United States doesn’t have the responsibility to do something about the violence in Iraq. Six in 10 say the war was wrong in the first place, and nearly that many say Obama was right to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country in 2011. Majorities say it’s very or somewhat likely that Islamist militants would attack the United States if they took over Iraq — and yet in poll after poll, most Americans also say they oppose intervention and it’s not in the national interest to get involved.

Oh, and by 51 percent to 27 percent, people blame George W. Bush rather than Obama for “the situation in Iraq.” A president could do worse than to abide by “Don’t do stupid stuff.”

Jill Lawrence, the author of the Brookings Institution’s Profiles in Negotiation series, is a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor and a member of USA Today’s board of contributors.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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