I've decided every US president needs a 5 to 12-year-old child on their staff. I'm sure right now someone is saying, "They don't? You couldn't tell by their current policies." This isn't a punch line though I am trying to make a serious point. The one thing children around that age have in common is they ask a lot of basic questions. Why? What if… How come? I think that could serve President Barack Obama very well when it comes to the issue of Iraq.
In many ways he is the president because he opposed the war from the beginning. One of his main campaign pledges the first time around was to bring the troops home. During the second campaign he often cited the war's end as one of his biggest foreign policy accomplishments. And now that Iraq is again an open battlefield displaying the horrors of a sectarian divide he is being blamed in the US for "losing the war that had already been won."
The truth of the matter is that the president did try to keep some troops in Iraq, but he couldn't get the Iraqi government to sign the necessary agreement. He never talked about that then, and that means he can't now. That is where the child would come in handy in the situation room. "What if it gets bad again? What will you say then?" These are not complicated questions, but there is no sign in their messaging that the questions were even asked.
So now what? The president is deciding if the US should get involved to shore up the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And that is exactly what it would look like if American bombs start falling on Iraqi soil again. This would be seen as taking sides. It could further inflame the sectarian tensions. The only way to avoid that is if the prime minister agrees to form a "more inclusive government" first. The US has been asking him to do that for years, without success. It didn't stop them from providing millions of dollars' worth of bullets, helicopters and missiles to his military. Now, they feel he might have to listen to the US demands and they've given him a few days to decide.
This is the first real test of the “Obama doctrine” that the president just recently laid out. It was a long speech, but his basic promise was unless the core National Interests of the US was threatened, he would not use military force unilaterally. He isn’t making that argument now with Iraq. Instead he is saying it could eventually pose a threat to the US. That is what they call wiggle room here in Washington.
There's another challenge to his doctrine. He said that the goal of the US should be to train the military in other countries to fight so the US wouldn't have to, a goal he reiterated on Friday when he spoke about Iraq. In the same speech he talked about how poorly the Iraqi military has performed. He said they weren't fighting, not because they weren't trained well, but because the Iraqi government can't lead them. This might be the time for our imaginary child staffer to ask a few questions.
So what should the president do? He can't ask the American people. They seem very much divided on this issue. Some say, we've lost enough, let it fail. Others say, we've lost so much we can't let it fail. The president, as he often does, seems to be trying to find a middle ground in this very complicated and emotional situation. It is a very hard thing to fix something while it is in the middle of breaking apart.
The president can blame the Iraqi prime minister for letting it get to this point. He can blame him if he doesn't make changes and then the US sits on the sidelines. The president is well aware as all legacy-seeking humans are that no matter who he blames, or what he says now, if Iraq fails and becomes a state for al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, history will remember him as the president who lost a war and he will bear responsibility for all that may bring in the future. Or as a child might put it, you can't unclaim credit.