President Obama came into office promising to turn the page on a chapter of American history defined by two wars in the greater Middle East. His consistency in delivering on that promise is admirable, as is the focus with which he has learned from and sought to avoid his predecessor’s mistakes regarding the use of American force abroad.
Ironically, however, Obama’s fixation on closing one chapter led him to decisions that opened a new one that reads very similarly. This new war on ISIS—Obama’s war—which began in August 2014, can be traced to two errors of judgment. Jeffrey Goldberg’s article on “The Obama Doctrine” reveals that these errors were driven by the president's determination to keep his promises to the American people and to avoid the mistakes of the past.
The first mistake was Obama’s retreat from Iraq—the withdrawal not just of U.S. forces, but even more so of diplomatic energy and leverage, which, successfully deployed, might have mitigated the collapse of the Iraqi political experiment and thus blunted the rise of ISIS. After Iraq held its (pre-American withdrawal) elections in 2010, the Obama administration took a hands-off approach to Iraqi domestic politics, and it failed to replace the American military presence with a robust set of civilian, economic, and other partnerships to sustain American influence. In 2011, my last of about two years working on Middle East policy in Obama’s State Department, we were planning for sharp cuts in civilian programs for Iraq alongside the military drawdown—and over the next two years, U.S. economic aid to Iraq dropped nearly 50 percent. The administration had ample warning about the damage Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian and power-hungry behavior was having on Iraqi security and stability. But the president and Vice President Biden, who managed the Iraq portfolio on Obama’s behalf, chose to do very little to constrain Maliki as he began to unravel the tentative political bargains between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds within federal Iraq.