Obama's tendency to caricature his critics — in this case suggesting that they're looking for "theater" rather than solid accomplishment — may be remembered as one of his most damaging traits. It betrays a prickly narcissism that precludes honest self-assessment.
In fact, the president's failure in Iraq is not the result of being unwilling to act militarily. His failure lies in setting up a situation in which "kinetic military action" (to use the Obama administration's actual euphemism for intervention in Libya) is the only choice. The president who came into office scorning the use of military power and boasting of his diplomatic prowess did not just fail by military weakness, but also by diplomatic malpractice.
Obama withdrew all U.S. troops from Iraq when their continued presence would have facilitated the growth of democratic institutions and prevented the upwelling of extremism. As Dexter Filkens of The New Yorker explained in a recent interview:
"Every single senior political leader ... said to them privately, we want you to stay. ... We don't want combat troops. We don't want Americans getting killed, but we want 10,000 American troops inside the Green Zone training our army, giving us intelligence, playing that crucial role as the broker and interlocutor that makes our system work." But Obama wanted bragging rights about "ending" the war.
What is even more striking for the president who prides himself on non-military solutions is his diplomatic failure.
After a free election in 2010 gave a plurality to Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, Nouri al-Maliki, a close second-place finisher, staged a coup backed by Iran. The U.S. remained silent about this clear violation of Iraq's constitution. Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart quotes the Brookings Institution's Kenneth Pollack: "The message" that America's acquiescence "sent to Iraq's people and politicians alike was that the United States under the new Obama administration was no longer going to enforce the rules of the democratic road. ... (This) undermined the reform of Iraqi politics and resurrected the specter of the failed state and the civil war."
Maliki set about harassing and arresting leading Sunni politicians, but the Obama administration, "eyeing the exits" in the words of Vali Nasr, a foreign service officer at the time, gave tacit consent. On a visit to the White House, Maliki tested the waters with Obama by denouncing Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, the highest-ranking Sunni government minister, as a supporter of terrorism. Obama responded that this was an internal Iraqi matter. A week later, a warrant was issued for Hashimi's arrest. He fled the country, but 13 of his bodyguards were tortured. This was followed by a wave of arrests and murders of Sunnis.
The Obama administration claims that it pressured Maliki in private to be more inclusive. Perhaps so, but private conversations do not make history. Maliki could take satisfaction in Obama's continued public support. Even after he had unleashed a wave of arrests and worse against Iraqi Sunnis, Obama declined to criticize. On the contrary, he praised "Prime Minister Maliki's commitment to ... ensuring a strong, prosperous, inclusive and democratic Iraq." That was carte blanche for civil war.
Iraq was a fragile coalition of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. The minority Sunnis had ruled under Saddam Hussein and feared retribution from the majority Shiites. A steady hand from the United States, backed by the stabilizing presence of 10,000 or so U.S. troops, could have guided Iraq toward the kind of government that would have been able to prevent the dangerous rise of ISIS, which took root in Anbar Province, a majority Sunni region. The Sunnis were open to ISIS precisely because they had been excluded, harassed, arrested, tortured and murdered by Maliki.
Only when ISIS was charging through the countryside beheading, crucifying and enslaving did Obama bestir himself to notice that the Maliki government had created the conditions for this disaster. He has yet to recognize that his own diplomatic malpractice is also to blame.