President Obama's Impossible Choices in Iraq

Desperately needed humanitarian aid, a fraught authorization to conduct airstrikes, and the neoconservative critics who make Obama look good
Larry Downing/Reuters

As a frequent critic of President Obama's foreign-policy record, particularly his unlawful decision to wage war in Libya without congressional approval and his shortsighted, immoral over-reliance on drone strikes in several countries, I applaud his decision to order food and water dropped on refugees in Northern Iraq.

Assuming that the situation is as reported—an ethnic minority group facing death by thirst or starvation if they remain in their mountain hideout, or slaughter at the hands of a genocidal enemy should they descend to seek sustenance—the minimal risk to Americans of delivering supplies is more than justified, particularly given that the Iraqi government has assented to the mission. Considering the stark choices, I presume that there is no shortage of U.S. pilots who'd willingly volunteer to carry it out. "The aircraft assigned to dropping food and water ... were a single C-17 and two C-130 aircraft," The New York Times reported. "They were escorted by a pair of F-18 jet fighters .... The planes were over the drop zone for about 15 minutes, and flew at a relatively low altitude ... and dropped 5,300 gallons of fresh drinking water and 8,000 meals ready to eat." 

President Obama has just authorized various uses of military force in Iraq as well. 

"I said in June, as the terrorist group ISIL began an advance across Iraq, that the U.S. would be prepared to take targeted military action in Iraq if and when we determined that the situation required it," he said Thursday night. "In recent days, these terrorists have continued to move across Iraq, and have neared the city of Erbil, where American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces. To stop the advance on Erbil, I’ve directed our military to take targeted strikes against ISIL terrorist convoys should they move toward the city. We intend to ... take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad. We’re also providing urgent assistance to Iraqi government and Kurdish forces so they can more effectively wage the fight against ISIL."

About all that, I withhold judgment while acknowledging the difficult decision Obama faces—and my fear that he intends to intervene more fully than he is acknowledging. I have no idea whether the course he's setting is imprudent, prescient, or something in between.

If anyone tells you otherwise, read what they've written on Iraq since 2002. Have they been wrong on huge questions? Did they anticipate major turning points in the past? Odds are they have no idea what will happen next.

The hawks now insisting that Iraq would be in much better shape if only American troops had stayed there would do particularly well to remember their utter inability to accurately forecast events in that country. For an example of failed humility, here's John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, casting blame on Obama:

What Obama is responsible for is this: Having assumed we had lost in Iraq (and probably having believed that loss was just, given how little he thought of the war and the reasons for fighting it), he became president and was basically informed that the war had all but been won while he was assaulting it on the way to his landslide election. Only a colossal fool would have thrown the Petraeus-Bush gift of an Iraq rescued from civil war and on its way to a stable future in the garbage, and Obama is not a fool. So he didn’t. What he did do was remain ever mindful of his promise to leave and how failing to deliver on that promise might affect his chances in 2012. So when the continued American presence in Iraq became contingent on reaching a legal agreement with the new government, he and his people trumped up reasons why Iraq was making that agreement impossible...and America walked.

If you want to see Obama’s monument there, just look: ISIS on the march. The Christians of Mosul decimated and set to flee. Strategic Iraqi assets from oil to water in the hands of what is now indubitably the worst non-state actor in the region since al Qaeda’s heyday. And the possibility of some kind of super-terror state under ISIS control from the Iraqi border with Iran to the lands west of Iraq in Syria.

Alternative history cannot be definitively disproved. There's no way to know what would be happening now if Obama had left more troops in Iraq. But if you've been wrong about Iraq as frequently as Podhoretz or the magazine he runs, it is perverse to profess certainty that the war was "all but won" by 2009, that Iraq would now be stable if only the president had listened to you, when of course you have no earthly way of knowing whether that is actually true. Podhoretz's definition of a war that was all but won required the indefinite presence of U.S. troops. His prior positions on Iraq include a belief that firing Donald Rumsfeld in 2006 would definitely lose the Iraq War, as well as the notion that perhaps the U.S. could've only won in Iraq by slaughtering Sunni men between 15 and 35.

On March 17, 2006, in "Iraq's Overlooked Triumph," Podhoretz wrote:

Despite the insistence of some realist conservatives that we have learned the folly of attempting to plant democratic ideas in the ruined earth of Iraq, the evidence of the past two weeks is that the seeds we planted are bearing fruit among the politicians elected in those dramatic and moving elections .... Iraqi politicians have sought to find common ground to calm the sectarian waters ... for now, the members of Iraq’s political class have chosen hope—chosen to fight their battles at the bargaining table rather than in the streets. By doing so, they are, in fact, offering an example of what democratic institutions are intended to do ... because many critics are desperate to see President Bush discredited and disgraced, the triumph of the political class in Iraq has been little noted. But if it holds, what has happened in the past two weeks will probably be seen as a turning point—and a validation of George Bush’s conviction that Iraq could eventually become a democracy."

Hurray for Iraq's politicians!

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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