Iraqi turbulence and US Middle East strategy

It was not so long ago, indeed during the last presidential campaign in the United States, that President Obama felt that he could congratulate himself that his decision to pull American troops out of Iraq had proven to be right; and that Iraq as a major issue in American, and indeed global foreign relations, had been removed from the limelight. Then further, the President’s subsequent decision to seek to, in effect, neutralize through negotiations, the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, seemed to be a follow-up, at the level of diplomacy, to an attempt to remove Iran as a source of continuing contention in Western-Middle Eastern relations.

The President must also have been relieved that his government’s strategy of accepting, or at least not vociferously objecting to, the establishment of a military regime in Egypt through military-controlled elections, did not give rise to much protest in that country, or too much critical comment from the rest of the world.

And in addition, even though the negotiations involving Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapons-building capability seemed to have been moving at a slow pace, as the Western powers turned their attention to the Ukraine issue, the President was probably content to allow a slower pace in those negotiations, to give the Iranians more time to fully consider the implications of not moving towards a solution acceptable to the NATO alliance countries as quickly as they might have wanted. This strategy would also satisfy the Israelis’ concern that negotiations were moving too fast over Iran’s nuclear capability.

Now, with the apparently sudden overrunning of large parts of Iraq by the so-named forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), the President has found himself the object of political attack by his Republican opponents at home, and even by some former officials of previous administrations, who have found fodder for their continuing claim that he had withdrawn American troops from Iraq too precipitously.

In their view, the President can be held responsible for what, they claim, seems to be the possibility of the fracturing of Iraq into its various ethno-religious parts, as the invading ISIS forces now seem to have placed the existing Iraqi regime in deep jeopardy.

And, further, the opponents are claiming that what they deem to be Obama’s benign attitude to the Shia-led Iranian government, has allowed it to extend its wings towards, first, easing the situation of the Syrian regime, which they see Iran as supporting. The Republicans insist Iranians have sought to support the Shia-led Iraqi government; and in that connection they recall the long war between Iran and Iraq, led by the Sunni President Saddam Hussein whose regime the Americans, under President George Bush, destroyed.

President Obama’s domestic critics, especially his once-defeated opponent Senator John McCain, now feel strengthened in their claim that Obama’s withdrawal of American troops, which they paint as not more than an electoral ploy towards a then war-weary American electorate, now represents the proverbial ‘chickens coming home to roost.’ They argue that the President, apart from being foolhardy, or at least politically opportunist in withdrawing the troops, and using that as a major re-election strategy, is substantially responsible for what has now happened in Iraq.

To this they make the further assertion that the ISIS forces, which had already been busy fighting first President Assad in Syria and then other rebel groups, were allowed to take seriously and exploit, a perception that the United States would be unwilling to return to a military presence in Iraq, particularly as President Nouri al-Maliki seemed to be increasingly feeling that with himself as the American’s ward, Obama would not, in the already volatile situation in Syria, risk any destabilization of the regime in Iraq.

In the view of Obama’s critics too, he has been, in his anxiety to find some agreement with the Iranians, failing to influence them to use, or to attempt to use, such leverage as they have had in relation to the Iraqi president, as he increasingly seemed to be on a frolic of his own.

The critics have also been claiming that what they deem to be the diplomatic paralysis of the President vis-à-vis Iraq has also been reflected in his somewhat benign attitude to developments in Turkey, where Prime Minister Erdogan seemed to be feeling the effects of the overflow of the Syrian civil war into that country, as refugees create accommodation problems there, even as domestic protest in his country has continued against him.

The Turkish president has been, in fact, consolidating relations with the Kurdish provinces of Iraq who wish to export their oil to, and through, Turkey, even as the Iraqi President was critical of the tendency towards increasing autonomy that the Kurds had been consolidating through their evolving financial autonomy vis-à-vis the Iraqi central government.

At this point, it would not be surprising if the US is contemplating the resignation of the Iraqi President, and his replacement by another leader, in the hope of diminishing the Shiite antagonism to the Sunnis, and inducing an alternative government that is not the result of a military defeat of the present incumbent. Such a strategy might even meet with the approval of the Iranians who, it is reported, have already moved to utilize their Iranian Revolutionary Guard in an advisory capacity so far, to inhibit the ISIS forces from reaching Baghdad.

Whether or not there is pressure against President Maliki, the political pressure in the United States is mounting against Obama, and it would not be at all unlikely if the world sees an apparently unlikely, diplomatic manoeuvre between the US and Iran, aimed at permitting a, probably temporary, solution.

On the other hand, if the ISIS assault continues successfully, the pressure will mount against President Obama to take alternative steps. The stakes will then be high for both himself, and his opponents who have forced his hand.

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