Why Obama Won’t Take on al-Qaeda in Iraq Anymore

A campaign plan overtaken by a desire to disentangle from the Middle East

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As al-Qaeda stages a frightening resurgence in western Iraq, raising anew questions about the fate of that country and the risks it might pose to the United States, it’s worth flashing back a few years.

On Sept. 12, 2007, Barack Obama gave one of the most important speeches of his first presidential campaign. Then still an underdog challenger to Hillary Clinton, Obama — speaking, perhaps impishly, in the town of Clinton, Iowa — laid out his plan for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. The plan was good politics, but Obama also carefully cast his position as responsible — not a hasty, politically-motivated retreat that could jeopardize American security. To that end, he assured that the U.S. would retain the capability to continue striking against terrorists within Iraq even after our combat forces were gone.

“We will need to retain some forces in Iraq and the region,” Obama said. “We’ll continue to strike at al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

Obama made the point repeatedly: “In ending the war, we must act with more wisdom than we started it,” he said a month earlier. “That is why my plan would maintain sufficient forces in the region to target al-Qaeda within Iraq.”

And in a February 2008 primary debate, moderator Tim Russert pressed Obama on whether there were any circumstances that would lead him to re-escalate in Iraq: “Do you reserve a right as American president to go back into Iraq, once you have withdrawn?” Russert asked.

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“If al-Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad,” Obama responded.

Six years later, even with al-Qaeda showing alarming strength in Iraq — and across the border in Syria — nobody thinks Obama will “go back into Iraq” anytime soon. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it Sunday: “This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis.”

“We are, in the worst-case scenario, months away from even starting to think about direct U.S. action,” says Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow with the New America Foundation and former national security council director for Iraq in the Bush and Obama White Houses.

One reason has to do with the way Obama’s withdrawal played out. Despite his repeated references to a residual force that would stay behind after U.S. combat troops were gone, Obama was unable to negotiate an acceptable agreement with the Iraqi government to allow for that (a crucial sticking point involved the legal protections for U.S. troops who remained in the country).

Conservatives like John McCain and Lindsey Graham have sharply criticized Obama for failing to win such an agreement — although Obama’s ambassador to Baghdad at the time, James Jeffrey, a former Bush White House deputy national security adviser, has said that the Obama team made a good-faith effort to win an agreement and could not overcome Iraqi intransigence. Still, Obama did refer to the ability of forces elsewhere in the region to take on al-Qaeda.

But another reason is politics: With America out of Iraq, disillusioned with Afghanistan, and clearly opposed to intervening in Syria, the opposition to a direct re-engagement in Iraq could be intense. Even McCain and Graham don’t propose it. And the administration now says it supports repealing the war authority Congress granted George W. Bush in the fall of 2002, which in theory might be used to justify renewed military action there.

“It would take nothing short of a catastrophic attack on the United States at home to get U.S. forces back into Iraq,” says Daniel Benjamin, formerly the Obama State Department’s top counter-terrorism official and now at Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding. “The American public has zero appetite for engagement in Iraq.”

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Finally, there’s the nature of the threat, which may be less alarming than it appears at the moment. While no one is glad to see the group scoring victories, U.S. officials still don’t believe that al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq and Syria are plotting attacks against America. Analysts and American officials are also hopeful that al-Qaeda may have overextended itself, and that the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will be able to beat back the Sunni radicals who have captured Fallujah and Ramadi.

“My guess is this is not going to end well for al-Qaeda,” says Ollivant. “I think there’s a possibility this was a mistake and these guys are going to get killed there. If they stay in the shadows and stay hidden, Maliki can’t find them. Now, if you want to find al-Qaeda you just have to read the New York Times.”

For now, the White House’s game plan involves better arming Maliki to repel al-Qaeda forces from his country.  A senior administration official complains to TIME that opposition in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — led by Democratic Chairman Robert Menendez — to giving Maliki advanced weapons like Apache attack helicopters has left Iraq’s security forces unable to meet the terrorist challenge. Menendez has expressed concern that Maliki might use such arms to repress non-al-Qaeda Sunni rivals within his country.

“Time and again, the SFRC has blocked the delivery of this support [Apaches],” says the official. “It’s hard to imagine why some members think now is a good time to deny the Iraqi Government the weapons it needs to effectively take the fight to al-Qaeda.”

If Maliki’s forces — likely with help from Sunni tribesmen who have opposed al-Qaeda in the past — can’t gain the advantage, however, Obama will face some extremely difficult decisions. While U.S. boots on the ground are almost impossible to imagine, it’s conceivable that Iraq could join places like Yemen and Pakistan as a theater for American counter-terror drone strikes.

“I can imagine that if we see the emergence of anti-western plotting or plotting against U.S. interests in the region that there would be a willingness to discuss some kind of joint effort involving drones,” says Benjamin.

But, he adds, “You don’t need to be sitting in the West Wing to know that the administration views disentangling from Iraq to be a major achievement and is going to be extremely loath to get us back involved. I think we’re a long way from there.”

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