Liberal Interventionism & Iraq Redux
Peter Beinart has taken a big swing at Obama’s Iraq policy, labeling it a “disaster.”
Among Beinart’s criticisms are Obama’s failure to “push” Maliki’s government to be more inclusive of Sunnis:
Yes, the Iraq War was a disaster of historic proportions. Yes, seeing its architects return to prime time to smugly slam President Obama while taking no responsibility for their own, far greater, failures is infuriating.
But sooner or later, honest liberals will have to admit that Obama’s Iraq policy has been a disaster. Since the president took office, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has grown ever more tyrannical and ever more sectarian, driving his country’s Sunnis toward revolt. Since Obama took office, Iraq watchers—including those within his own administration—have warned that unless the United States pushed hard for inclusive government, the country would slide back into civil war. Yet the White House has been so eager to put Iraq in America’s rearview mirror that, publicly at least, it has given Maliki an almost-free pass. Until now, when it may be too late.
Beinart also criticizes Obama for his failure to “push” the Maliki government to allow American troops to stay in Iraq past 2011:
Under an agreement signed by George W. Bush, the U.S. was to withdraw forces from Iraq by the end of 2011. American military officials, fearful that Iraq might unravel without U.S. supervision, wanted to keep 20,000 to 25,000 troops in the country after that. Obama now claims that maintaining any residual force was impossible because Iraq’s parliament would not give U.S. soldiers immunity from prosecution. Given how unpopular America’s military presence was among ordinary Iraqis, that may well be true. But we can’t fully know because Obama—eager to tout a full withdrawal from Iraq in his reelection campaign—didn’t push hard to keep troops in the country. As a former senior White House official told Peter Baker of The New York Times, “We really didn’t want to be there and [Maliki] really didn’t want us there.… [Y]ou had a president who was going to be running for re-election, and getting out of Iraq was going to be a big statement.”
In recent days, Republicans have slammed Obama for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But the real problem with America’s military withdrawal was that it exacerbated a diplomatic withdrawal that had been underway since Obama took office.
I encourage you to click through and read the whole article. For now, I’d like to address the problems with Beinart’s argument.
First, there is a reason why Beinart uses a vague, ill-defined term like “push” to describe efforts which the Obama administration could have used to prevent the current violence in Iraq: Beinart is afraid to come out and say what he actually wants the Obama Administration to do.
Beinart’s preferred course of action would require the Obama administration to break a legally binding treaty signed by Obama’s predecessor, on the grounds that leaving troops in Iraq after 2011 would have been better policy. Why? Because the diplomatic pressure that Beinart thinks the Obama administration should have applied to Iraq only matters if the Maliki government thinks there will be consequences should they decide not to cooperate. What consequences does Beinart propose? In the realm of international affairs, “consequences” generally require a threat of force. Nations generally only have two forms of force at their disposal: (1) military intervention, or (2) economic sanctions.
This means that getting Maliki’s government to cooperate would likely require either the threat of a second military intervention in Iraq (potentially to oust Maliki), or the threat of economic sanctions against Maliki’s government. The latter course would essentially guarantee that Iraq plunges into chaos by causing economic disruption and humanitarian disasters—an environment that violent fundamentalism thrives in. So in any sane world, we’re pretty much just looking at the threat of another military intervention. Something I doubt would win the U.S. many friends in the Middle East.
Second, even if we assume that leaving troops in Iraq after 2011 would have been good policy, in order to do so legally, Obama would need to renegotiate the treaty signed by George W. Bush. That would require the cooperation of the Maliki government—something Beinart admits has been non-existent from day one. The only other alternative is to break the treaty signed by George W. Bush.
Breaking that treaty would be unconstitutional under Art. VI, cl. 2 of the Constitution, which states that treaties lawfully entered into by the U.S. Government are the “supreme law of the land.” Treaties signed and ratified by the U.S. government have the same legal status as federal law. So if Obama can’t convince Maliki to renegotiate the terms of the treaty, Beinart’s plan would require Obama to violate Art. VI of the U.S. Constitution. As stated above, Beinart admits that the cooperation from the Maliki government has not been forthcoming. So all we’re left with, practically speaking, is breaking treaties and violating Art. VI of the Constitution.
If Obama did what Beinart is asking him to do, many of the same people who claim Obama didn’t do enough to intervene in Iraq’s affairs would in turn claim that Obama was engaging in (yet more) executive overreach and disregarding the limitations of his office. And in this case, they would be correct. Unilaterally breaking a legally binding treaty would be a clearly impeachable offense.
With all this in mind, I don’t view Beinart’s take on the situation in Iraq as all that pragmatic. More to the point, his insistence that the renewed violence in Iraq requires American intervention to solve is another example of the same brand of American Exceptionalism that Beinart himself has written about the decline of. This idea that the violence in Iraq can only be cured by a “better U.S. policy” is a conceit of star-spangled origin. Iraqis are capable of solving this problem themselves. We should let them do so before the U.S. becomes embroiled in yet another sustained military intervention that requires years to extract ourselves from.