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Iraq's Meltdown Troubles U.S. Political Waters

Before talking about the situation in Iraq, President Obama bantered with (from left to right) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Before talking about the situation in Iraq, President Obama bantered with (from left to right) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Iraq has a long history of roiling American politics. And that doesn't appear about to change anytime soon.

With the Shiite-led Iraqi government losing control of large parts of its country to the Sunni extremist group known as ISIS, the question of who lost Iraq is starting to reverberate through Washington the way "who lost Vietnam" and "who lost China" did in earlier eras.

That all of this is happening during a midterm election stirs even more politics into the mix than if the current violence and ISIS inroads had occurred last year.

How all this will turn out is what former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would call a known unknown. (Or maybe it's an unknown unknown?) But there are some things about Iraq's interplay with the current state of U.S. politics that are safe to say.

The public opposes major new U.S. troop deployments to Iraq. Americans began hating U.S. involvement in Iraq during President George W. Bush's first term. That dislike intensified during his second term and contributed to the climate that led to President Obama's first election.

The voter mood has changed little since then. A recent poll by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic pollster, found 67 percent of respondents saying the U.S. should provide only equipment and intel but no troops versus 20 percent who supported the idea of the U.S. sending combat troops to fight ISIS.

That lack of public support explains why virtually no members of Congress are calling for significant U.S. combat forces to head back to Iraq. Instead, lawmakers, including some Democrats, have talked of Obama using air power in an attempt to contain ISIS.

Obama was anti-Iraq War when he ran. He remains so. Obama burst onto the national political scene because of his stance against invading Iraq. It led him first to the U.S. Senate, then the White House.

For Obama, Iraq was always the bad war of choice. His Iraq policy was always to exit as early as possible after training Iraqi troops and giving Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki time to work out an accommodation with Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites.

Maliki's failure to do that and to reach a pact with the U.S. that would have allowed U.S. troops to stay longer made it easier for Obama to fully withdraw combat troops by the end of 2011.

Obama has not only made it plain that he's not going to redeploy large numbers of U.S. troops to Iraq but that he's reluctant to send any kind of military help if the Iraqis don't get their act together.

Last week, before helicoptering to Andrews Air Force Base, he said in a statement he delivered on the White House South Lawn:

"As I said before, we are not going to be able to do it for them. And given the very difficult history that we've seen in Iraq, I think that any objective observer would recognize that in the absence of accommodation among the various factions inside of Iraq, various military actions by the United States, by any outside nation, are not going to solve those problems over the long term and not going to deliver the kind of stability that we need."

Iraq fits the Republican political narrative of Obama incompetence. Obama's GOP opponents are reading what's happening in Iraq and the president's response to it as further proof of the ineptitude or wrongheadedness of the president's policies toward Iraq specifically and on national security generally.

At a news briefing last week, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, literally accused the president of being asleep at the helm:

"It's not like we haven't seen this problem coming for over a year, and ... it's not like we haven't seen, over the last five or six months, these terrorists moving in, taking control of western Iraq. Now they've taken control of Mosul. They're 100 miles from Baghdad. And what's the president doing? Taking a nap."

Republicans have accused Obama of precipitating the current crisis by allegedly removing U.S. troops too early — which, they say, he did in 2011 for political reasons since he faced re-election the following year. "The question is, could all of this have been avoided? The answer is absolutely yes," said Sen. John McCain in a Senate floor speech last week.

GOP lawmakers got an assist from former Vice President Dick Cheney Wednesday. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece carrying his and his daughter Liz's byline, the Cheneys wrote:

"Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many. Too many times to count, Mr. Obama has told us he is 'ending' the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — as though wishing made it so. His rhetoric has now come crashing into reality."

Polling suggests many voters share Cheney's dissatisfaction with Obama on foreign policy. A new WSJ/NBC News poll showed Obama with the worst foreign policy ratings of his presidency at 37 percent approval compared with 57 percent who disapprove.

That's a problem for the president, certainly. But it's not like Republican alternatives are any more popular with voters. Again, most Americans agreed with Obama's decision to remove troops from Iraq and disapprove of redeploying them there.

Hillary Clinton still has an Iraq problem. The former secretary of state's 2008 presidential run was never able to get beyond her vote, as a senator, to authorize Bush's 2003 Iraq invasion. Clinton has said that vote was a mistake. But as she considers a 2016 presidential run, it's clear some people aren't going to let her live that vote down. One of them is McCain.

"They're trying to blame people like myself and the senator from South Carolina [Republican Lindsey Graham] for voting to authorize the war while conveniently forgetting that the vice president, the secretary — Vice President Biden, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, his predecessor, Secretary Clinton and many other Democrats still serving in this body voted for the war in Iraq as well," McCain said.

While Clinton differed with Obama before the war, her position on Iraq now sounds virtually identical to his.

This puts Clinton potentially in the worst of both possible worlds. She will still have voted for an unpopular war despite later disowning that vote. And she will have approved of Obama's 2011 withdrawal, which Republicans will blame her and the president for with ever louder voices as the situation worsens, which seems likely.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.
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