Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
In an opinion piece today, "The Big Decisions to Come
," Washington Post
columnist David Ignatius argues that the Middle East hosts all four of Barack Obama's major foreign policy challenges: the Israeli-Palestinian problem, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Along the way, Ignatius reports that "Afghanistan is already being called 'Obama's Vietnam'."
But I think that "Obama's Vietnam" is better applied to another problem of the quartet – Iraq. The stakes are higher in Iraq in terms of prestige, controversy, expectations, implications, lives lost, and money spent.
Here's what I expect: First, the American presence in Iraq will wind down faster and with less Iraqi coordination than expected. For an example of what is in store, another article in today's Washington Post, "Iraq Restricts U.S. Forces," explains that "Iraqi leaders increasingly see the [June 30 security] agreement as an opportunity to show their citizens that they are now unequivocally in charge and that their dependence on the U.S. military is minimal and waning." Achieving this goal already has had a major impact on American forces:
The Iraqi government has moved to sharply restrict the movement and activities of U.S. forces in a new reading of a six-month-old U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that has startled American commanders and raised concerns about the safety of their troops.
In a curt missive issued by the Baghdad Operations Command on July 2 -- the day after Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. troops to bases outside city centers—Iraq's top commanders told their U.S. counterparts to "stop all joint patrols" in Baghdad. It said U.S. resupply convoys could travel only at night and ordered the Americans to "notify us immediately of any violations of the agreement."
The strict application of the agreement coincides with what U.S. military officials in Washington say has been an escalation of attacks against their forces by Iranian-backed Shiite extremist groups, to which they have been unable to fully respond. … The new guidelines are a reflection of rising tensions between the two governments. …
The Americans have been taken aback by the new restrictions on their activities. The Iraqi order runs "contrary to the spirit and practice of our last several months of operations," Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. "Maybe something was 'lost in translation'," Bolger wrote. "We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I'm sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be."
Second, as the Obama administration's term of office stretches from months into years, the Iraq war will, willy-nilly, become its war. Failure in Iraq will become its failure. Obama will find himself having to invest in making a success of George W. Bush's Iraq venture.
Third, just as Bush could not succeed in Iraq, neither will Obama.
Fourth, Bush will get a relative pass from historians, having given Iraq his all. Obama will be pinned more with the failure than Bush.
Finally, this could have significant electoral implications in 2010 and especially in 2012. (July 19, 2009)
June 16, 2010 update: Here's another reason for pessimism about Iraq: "Iran Tests Iraqi Resolve at the Border" write Timothy Williams and Namo Abdulla from Ali Rash, a remote mountainous Iraqi village along the border with Iran. The village, they write,
has been deserted, its people having fled Iranian air and artillery bombardments with everything they could carry and whatever livestock that could be coaxed down the steep mountain trails. Now the hundreds of Kurds who left Ali Rash and other mountain villages are living in sweltering refugee camp tents. They are at the center of questions about whether Iraq is willing or able to defend its borders with Iran — which has repeatedly breached the frontier in recent months.
About 200 Kurdish families live in a refugee camp near their now-deserted Iraqi villages of Ali Rash and Sharkhan, near the border with Iran. (NYT)
The attacks on Ali Rash and at least a dozen other Kurdish villages have continued for more than a month and have included a foray by Iranian tanks one mile into Iraqi territory. But they have elicited only a tepid protest from Iraq's government, including the release of a statement pleading with neighboring countries to honor its borders. The Iranian government has said its bombing campaigns are necessary to weaken Kurdish guerrillas that strike in Iran and take refuge in Iraq. The only confirmed casualty has been a 14-year-old girl.
The incursions, though, come at a critical time for Iraq — amid the political stalemate over who should lead the next government more than three months after a divided electorate cast ballots, and less than three months before the American military is scheduled to withdraw its last combat soldier from the country. United States forces continue to patrol portions of Iraq's 910-mile frontier with Iran, but in the Qandil Mountain villages that have suffered the brunt of the Iranian offensive, there are no American, Iraqi or Kurdish soldiers.
July 4, 2012 update: The Associated Press offers more reasons to be pessimistic in an article today, "Iraqis face long future of fear as attacks mount." Excerpts:
Tensions simmer between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite communities, yet they share an increasingly widespread despair. Al-Qaida-style attacks are on the rise, faith in the government's ability to keep people safe is on the wane and a fatalistic acceptance of a life of fear is perniciously settling in.
Nine years after the U.S. led an invasion of Iraq that overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein — purging the leadership and military of his supporters and leading to a fight against insurgents in a bloody guerrilla war that left more than 100,000 dead — Iraq's outlook is increasingly bleak in summer 2012.
Instead of a Western-style democracy functioning in peace and cooperation, what's been left behind is dysfunctional and increasingly violent. Many of the attacks of the past month have targeted Shiites on annual religious pilgrimages, raising fears of a return to the deadly cycle of destructive violence between Sunni and Shiite communities. …
What's worrying about Iraq's recent wave of attacks is how they've increased in frequency and size. In the months before U.S. troops left, extremists were still launching large-scale attacks that killed dozens every few weeks, but analysts said they needed the time in between to coordinate and gather explosives.
May 15, 2013 update: Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy confirms my pessimism in "Yes, Iraq Is Unraveling."
Iraq is a basket case these days, and none of its problems came out of the blue. In the latest bout of sectarian and ethnic bloodletting, coordinated bomb attacks ripped through Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and also northern Iraq, killing more than 30 people. The spasm of violence followed clashes between the Iraqi army and Sunni protesters and insurgents last month, where the federal government temporarily lost control of some town centers and urban neighborhoods in Kirkuk, Nineveh, and Diyala provinces.
Negative indicators abound: Armed civilian militias are reactivating, tit-for-tat bombings are targeting Sunni and Shiite mosques, and some Iraqi military forces are breaking down into ethnic-sectarian components or suffering from chronic absenteeism. Numerous segments of Iraq's body politic—Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shia—are exasperated over the government's inability to address political or economic inequities, and are talking seriously about partition.
Related Topics: Iraq, US policy
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