Last Updated: Fri Dec 30, 2011 15:01 pm (KSA) 12:01 pm (GMT)

Could Obama pay a price if Iraq spirals?

U.S. President Barack Obama, seen here with his wife Michelle on the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, could find the Iraq war haunting his election campaign next year. (Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama, seen here with his wife Michelle on the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, could find the Iraq war haunting his election campaign next year. (Reuters)

Fears that Iraq will spiral into instability and slip under Iran’s sway may foreshadow an election year row over President Barack Obama’s core political achievement: ending the war.

Obama, currently on vacation in Hawaii, built his political career on early opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion, capturing a public mood which helped propel him to the White House five years later.

So when he brought the last U.S. soldiers home this month, he touted a promise kept in extricating the United States from what critics see as a grand folly.

But long-time war supporters have questioned whether rising sectarianism and instability bubbling up after the U.S. exit could undercut Obama’s hopes to use the withdrawal as proof of sound national security judgment.

“The question of the moment is not: ‘Who lost Iraq?’ but rather, ‘Is Iraq definitely lost?’” wrote Frederick and Kimberly Kagan in the Weekly Standard.

“It certainly seems so.”

Frederick Kagan was an architect of the surge strategy enacted by president George W. Bush which, if it did not provide the United States “victory” in Iraq, allowed U.S. troops to leave without the stigma of defeat.

Obama argued that American sacrifices forged an Iraq that was “sovereign, stable, and self-reliant.”

But recent violent attacks, signs of revived sectarianism, a fragile governing coalition and fears of growing authoritarianism on the part of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have challenged that view.

In a New York Times op-ed Thursday, leading members of the Iraqiya bloc accused Maliki of hounding Sunni opponents.

“The prize, for which so many American soldiers believed they were fighting, was a functioning democratic and nonsectarian state,” they wrote.

"But Iraq is now moving in the opposite direction ─ toward a sectarian autocracy that carries with it the threat of devastating civil war.”

So if Iraq tips into the mire, will Obama’s eventual Republican opponent in next November’s election have reason to bash his commander-in-chief spurs?

Or will Americans credit their president with getting American troops out of the deepening maelstrom and out of harm’s way?

Republican hawks imply Obama has squandered the legacy of the nearly 4,500 U.S. troops who fell in the Iraq war.

“All of the progress that both Iraqis and Americans have made, at such painful and substantial cost, has now been put at greater risk,” Republican Senator John McCain said in December.

Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney attacked Obama in a recent interview with Fox News Sunday, saying that the withdrawal was “precipitous” and that up to 30,000 U.S. troops should have been left behind.

Top Obama administration officials dismiss the idea that a residual U.S. force would have increased U.S. leverage in Iraqi politics.

And Marina Ottaway, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the view that troops equals influence was false.

“Even at the height of the surge, when we had more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the U.S. was never able to force or convince the Iraqi politicians to do things that they didn’t want to do,” she said.

The Obama administration notes that it took months for Iraqi leaders to form a coalition after 2010 elections, so political dislocation is nothing new.

And they argue that attacks in Iraq ─ like the blasts that killed more than 65 people last week ─ were a common occurrence even when large numbers of U.S. troops were there, so cannot be pinned on the U.S. departure.

Even if Iraq does badly deteriorate, it is unclear whether Americans will blame for the legacy of a war that was so politically divisive.

And even hawks do not advocate sending U.S. troops back into Iraq.

“The only real issue that people care about is the economy,” said Ottaway.

“Americans have long since put the Iraq war behind them. Nobody wants to hear about it.”

In a Zogby poll in September, 74 percent of Americans asked said the U.S. withdrawal was a positive development, compared to 13 percent who disagreed, suggesting that for now at least, Obama is on solid political ground.

Duke University professor Peter Feaver, a veteran of the Clinton and George W. Bush National Security Councils, acknowledged there is no longer intense public debate on the Iraq war.

But he argued Obama could have exploited the low wattage of the issue to sell a continued U.S. presence, had U.S. lawyers thrashed out a deal to keep some forces in Iraq to promote stability and train local forces.

“He took the course that had the most political payoff for him ... but paradoxically, I would argue that it has the most risk,” said Feaver.

He went on to warn that a swift Iraqi deterioration could haunt Obama in the election year or in any eventual second term.

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