Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2015.04.07

Who Lost Iraq?

JBpress on April 3, 2015

Who lost Iran? This is a question that was frequently asked in 1979 when journalists as well as Republican opponents ridiculed the incompetent foreign policy of then President Jimmy Carter. Time flies and now it is Iraq's turn. Such questions, however, may not stop in Baghdad, when it comes to the foreign policy of President Barack Obama in 2015.

Who lost the country? Whenever U.S. foreign policy goes wrong, Americans love to blame it on the President. It started with China in 1949, then with Vietnam in 1973 and eventually Iran in 1979, Egypt in 2011 and finally Iraq in the summer of 2014, when ISIL took over Mosul after the Iraqi Armed Forces divisions were badly defeated.

When asked who lost Iran in February 1979, President Carter stated that, "It's obvious that Iran was not ours to lose in the first place. We don't own Iran, and we have never had any intention nor ability to control the internal affairs of Iran." He also said at a news conference that, "I don't know of anything we could have done to prevent [the incident] from occurring in Iran."

President Carter did not get the point. He was not asked whether the United States owned or controlled Iran. The real question was whether or not the President of the United States of America was ready and determined not only to show but also to use if necessary the power of America in such "complicated social and religious and political interrelationships [...] in Iran."

Obviously he was not ready and determined in 1979. Neither has President Obama been in 2015. He withdrew U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. He did not show America's strength against ISIL when Mosul fell to the Jihadists. The U.S. Air Force started air raids against ISIL forces only after two American hostages were beheaded last summer.

ISIL is among the many players in the Middle East who take advantage of this American naiveté. The first and foremost player is the Iranians who tactically support Iraq's Shiite militias (not the regular army) who have reportedly taken over Tikrit. This means that the northern half of Iraq is being virtually taken over by Iran. Now it is crystal clear who lost Iraq. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the tragedy.

For Israel, this kind of American inertia is a nightmare, too. If they believe they cannot rely 100% on their bilateral alliance with the United States, the Israelis must react on their own. That's why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke the taboo of visiting Washington D.C. last March to give a speech in Congress less than two weeks before general elections at home.

Moreover, Arab nations are playing the same game in different ways.

In Bahrain four years ago, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies deployed 'Peninsula Shield Force' troops to Manama, accusing Iran of backing opposition from the Shiite majority against the Sunni monarchy. At that time President Obama just said that he was "deeply concerned" by the violence, while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton only urged restraint.

The new king of Saudi Arabia did not seek U.S. consent for the bombing campaign in Yemen. The Saudis, Egyptians and other Sunni Arabs accuse Iran of supporting the movement of the Houthis, a Shiite Islamic tribe in the south-western Arabian Peninsula. In response, the Obama administration only withdrew U.S. special operations units from Yemen.

In a nutshell, key players in the Middle East, from ISIL to Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even the Houthis, all seem to have realized that the Obama administration is not willing to act decisively, and that each one of them must react on their own to the rapidly changing politico-military environment in their neighborhood. Once this kind of phenomenon gets started it is very difficult for anyone to stop.

The Middle East is not alone in coming to this realization. Similar phenomena are taking place on the ground in Eastern Europe and on the water in East Asia. With the absence of American determination, major powers in various parts of the world start playing their own games. These vicious cycles must be stopped now and the status quo maintained.

How long will this go on? Most likely for two more years until January 2017? Can we wait? Or do we have enough time? Nobody seems to know the answers. However, as long as this situation continues, the right and just will be most likely overwhelmed by the wrong and unjust. American foreign policy is now playing a handicapped game, with a much reduced chance of victory.