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June 20, 2014

Iraq Casts Giant Political Shadow

by Jim Malone

It’s long been said that the shadow of Iraq will follow the presidency of George W. Bush into history.  Now it appears the same could be looming for President Barack Obama.
 
Iraq continues to consume official Washington at the moment and already it seems we are in the early stages of a ‘Who Lost Iraq’ debate, with Republicans and Democrats pointing fingers at each other.
 
President Barack Obama has announced steps to secure the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, send in up to 300 U.S. military trainers to help Iraqi government forces and called on the Iraqi government to undertake reforms and become more inclusive.
 
The president also noted that there has been a resurgence of the divisive political debate over Iraq in the U.S. and said his administration will continue to ask “hard questions” in advance of any consideration about future U.S. military involvement in Iraq.  Mr. Obama made clear that U.S. ground forces will not be sent back into battle.  He told reporters at the White House, “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.  Ultimately, this is something that is going to have to be solved by Iraqis."
 
Weakening Poll Numbers
 
The Iraq crisis comes as a new Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found President Obama’s approval rating on a sharply negative trajectory.  41 percent approve of the president’s job performance, tying a previous low.  On foreign policy, the poll found support at a new low for the president, down to 37 percent.  Foreign policy has been one of the president’s political strengths, especially after the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.  But in recent months the administration has been forced to deal with a long list of overseas challenges including Ukraine, Syria and the wind-down of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan.
 
Polls show declining public confidence in the administration’s foreign policy in general and Republicans have been quick to go on the attack, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner.  “You look at this presidency and you can’t help but get the sense that the wheels are coming off.”
 
Former Vice President Dick Cheney also weighed in, ratcheting up the political heat.  Cheney and his daughter Liz argued in the Wall Street Journal that President Obama’s foreign policy has weakened the U.S. and emboldened America’s enemies, especially in dealing with Iraq and a renewed threat from al-Qaida.  The Cheney’s wrote: “Rarely has a president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”
 
Unexpectedly, the Cheney’s were grilled about that comment on the Fox News Channel, usually a friendly haven for conservatives.  Many Democrats have also spoken out against the former vice president and his role in advocating the U.S. of invasion of Iraq back in 2003.
 
On the Defensive
 
On one hand, the Obama administration correctly cites polls that Americans are not interested in another war in the Middle East right now.  But the low 37 percent approval rating for the president’s handling of foreign policy also suggests Americans would like to see something done, not only on Iraq but in dealing with the situation in Ukraine and with a resurgent Russia.  Several foreign policy analysts argue that many Americans are sick of paying the price for lengthy overseas wars but also hate to see their role as the world’s pre-eminent power in decline.
 
One key question for the Obama administration moving forward on Iraq is what exactly will U.S. voters support?  More military trainers?  Limited air strikes?  Increased help for the Iraqi government?  In a post-9-11 world these questions are not easily answered.  President Obama knows this all too well.  He ran for the presidency in 2008 in part to change U.S. outreach to the world in the wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  He won the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 in no small part because he was able to draw a contrast with Hillary Clinton, who supported the Iraq war while a senator from New York.
 
Impact on Clinton
 
The Iraq crisis flared just as Hillary Clinton began her much anticipated book tour to promote “Hard Choices”, the memoir of her tenure as Mr. Obama’s secretary of State during his first term.  In the book, Clinton says she now sees her vote in favor of the Iraq war as a mistake.  She writes:  “I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong.  But I still got it wrong.  Plain and simple.”  Obviously if Clinton decides to run for president in 2016, she hopes anti-war activists within the Democratic Party will finally forgive her for that vote.
 
In her book, Clinton also seeks to remind readers of the challenges the administration faced in the early days of Mr. Obama’s time in office, when the focus was a complete overhaul of how the U.S. interacted with the rest of the world.  Clinton says she won’t decide on a presidential run until next year, but if she does, Clinton supporters say the book will serve as a nifty reminder of her transformation from domestic political figure to world celebrity and now a clear frontrunner not only for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2016 but for the White House as well.
 
But a lot of things can happen between now and then, assuming Clinton decides to become a candidate.  Already there have been a few rocky moments during the Hillary book tour.  She had to walk back some comments about how she and former President Bill Clinton were “dead broke” after they left the White House early in 2001, largely because of huge legal bills.  She also got into a testy debate with a show host on National Public Radio about how and why she came to support same sex marriage.
 
Clinton was riding high in the polls ever since she left the State Department in early 2013, giving a series of paid speeches and engaging in the occasional Q+A with audiences.  But in launching the book tour she re-entered the political spotlight and that means less control over questions from the media and infinitely more opportunities to chat about issues she hasn’t had to address publicly in a long time.
 
The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll contains mixed news for Clinton should she decide to seek the presidency two years from now.  55 percent of those surveyed agreed with the notion that she is “knowledgeable and experienced enough to handle the presidency.”  Other recent polls show Clinton to be a huge favorite for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, far outpacing Vice President Joe Biden and a few other Democrats who are less well-known around the country.
 
But on the flip side, the latest Journal-NBC poll found that only 38 percent rate her highly for “being honest and straightforward.”  37 percent said there was no chance they would vote for her for president in 2016.
 
It’s still way too early to know how Clinton might fare if she makes a presidential bid.  And it’s foolish to predict now what issues will drive the debate in late 2015 and early 2016 when the presidential campaign gets underway.  But it is likely that we will hear more from Republicans about the Obama administration’s foreign policy in general and its handling of Iraq in particular, with even scrutiny of Hillary Clinton’s stewardship of U.S. foreign policy during the president’s first term.