March 2, 2010 | NOW Lebanon

Why Does Obama Refuse to Lead in Iraq?

Last week, General Raymond Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq, made statements that refocused attention on the strategic importance of Iraq for US regional interests. Odierno framed the issue, particularly Iraqi parliamentary elections this Sunday, in the context of Washington’s regional confrontation with Iran: Would Iraq succeed and remain a partner of the US, or would it become a satellite of Iran?

In remarks delivered at the Institute for the Study of War, Odierno spoke of the need for much deeper engagement with Iraq to ensure a long-term partnership with a critical Middle Eastern country. President Barack Obama, in contrast, has been preoccupied mainly with the US withdrawal, betraying a lack of strategic vision that has had negative consequences for the region. There are increasing concerns about Obama’s aloofness in Iraq, as Iran steadily seeks to shape political outcomes there in its favor.

According to the journalist Thomas Ricks, Odierno recently requested that a combat brigade remain in northern Iraq beyond the August withdrawal deadline for all American combat forces. The brigade may be meant for Kirkuk. Months ago, Odierno proposed deploying joint patrols in the disputed city involving American, Iraqi government, and Kurdish troops.

However, Odierno is concerned with more than just security. The general has made sure to highlight that Iraq’s parliamentary elections are being watched closely by the country’s neighbors. His concerns were validated during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit last week to Damascus, where he met with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. While there, the Iranian president offered Tehran’s reading of the American withdrawal as well as of the regional architecture Iran seeks, and Iraq’s place in it.

The Americans, Ahmadinejad said, “not only have failed to gain any power, but also are forced to leave the region. They are leaving their reputation, image, and power behind in order to escape … The [American] government has no influence in regional ties … Today [regional] countries are in control. The expansion of Iran-Syria ties, Syria-Turkey ties, and Iran-Turkey ties–God willing, Iraq too will joint the circle–shows that regional countries are following the path of convergence.”

Odierno has been voicing concerns about Iran’s and Syria’s undermining of Iraqi stability more vocally than anyone. After the August 2009 bombings in Baghdad, he recognized the political nature of the attacks and did not hesitate to point the finger at groups harbored by and receiving financial and logistical support from Syria. Odierno linked the bombings to the elections, even as Damascus has been explicit about its desire to see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defeated. Such attacks are designed to weaken Maliki by showing that his government cannot maintain security.

Similarly, Odierno has been blunt about Iran’s efforts to advance its interests in Iraq through pro-Iranian Shiite politicians like Ahmed Chalabi. According to Odierno, Chalabi and others are “getting support by other nations who in fact are trying to push very specific agendas inside of Iraq.”

Last week, an unclassified summary of Odierno’s briefing on Iranian operations in Iraq, which are being directed by the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, was released to the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The leak displayed a desire on Odierno’s part to highlight the urgency of a renewed American commitment to Iraq, and the broader battle being fought there.

Odierno's activity shows he is worried that the political leadership in Washington may not act as quickly and decisively as required. In light of the White House’s three-month-long process to agree to its Afghanistan plan, Odierno feels that he cannot afford similar waffling. Meanwhile, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates remarked about the cumbersome nature of US foreign policy decision-making: “[O]ther countries … are taking full advantage to more quickly fund projects, sell weapons, and build relationships.”

What other overriding purpose aside from withdrawal has Barack Obama laid out for the US in Iraq? The White House’s silence has been deafening. Already the perception of an American vacuum has caused a panicking Saudi Arabia, eager to contain Iranian influence in Iraq, to cover for Syrian actions in the country intended to defeat Maliki. Instead of offering leadership and ensuring that the policies of the United States’ regional allies are in line with those of Washington, Obama has taken initiatives bereft of strategic coherence. This includes the ill-advised decision recently to elevate the level of contacts with Syria in the hope of “isolating” Iran.

The former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, recently laid out in an opinion piece what was at stake for Washington. He cautioned that the US needed to develop an overarching regional strategy to defeat the Iran-led axis–the primary challenger of the American order in the Middle East. Kissinger wrote, “Operational continuity is needed in a strategic concept for a region over which the specter of Iran increasingly looms.”

The Damascus summit clearly and confidently reaffirmed the nature of this Iran-led axis and its vision for the region. However, Obama’s obsession with ending America’s presence in Iraq, which he apparently still views largely as being “George W. Bush’s war,” will not alter the country’s importance to the United States. The reality, as Kissinger wrote, “is bound to obtrude on our consciousness,” whether the White House likes it or not.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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