In an opinion piece [Sunday], “The Big Decisions to Come,” Washington Post columnist David Ignatius argues that the Middle East hosts all four of Barack Obama’s major foreign policy challenges: the Israeli-Palestinian problem, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Along the way, Ignatius reports that “Afghanistan is already being called ‘Obama’s Vietnam’.”
But I think that “Obama’s Vietnam” is better applied to another problem of the quartet – Iraq. The stakes are higher in Iraq in terms of prestige, controversy, expectations, implications, lives lost, and money spent.
Here’s what I expect: First, the American presence in Iraq will wind down faster and with less Iraqi coordination than expected. For an example of what is in store, another article in [Sunday's] Washington Post, “Iraq Restricts U.S. Forces,” explains that “Iraqi leaders increasingly see the [June 30 security] agreement as an opportunity to show their citizens that they are now unequivocally in charge and that their dependence on the U.S. military is minimal and waning.” Achieving this goal already has had a major impact on American forces:
The Iraqi government has moved to sharply restrict the movement and activities of U.S. forces in a new reading of a six-month-old U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that has startled American commanders and raised concerns about the safety of their troops.
In a curt missive issued by the Baghdad Operations Command on July 2 — the day after Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal of U.S. troops to bases outside city centers—Iraq’s top commanders told their U.S. counterparts to “stop all joint patrols” in Baghdad. It said U.S. resupply convoys could travel only at night and ordered the Americans to “notify us immediately of any violations of the agreement.”
The strict application of the agreement coincides with what U.S. military officials in Washington say has been an escalation of attacks against their forces by Iranian-backed Shiite extremist groups, to which they have been unable to fully respond. … The new guidelines are a reflection of rising tensions between the two governments. …
The Americans have been taken aback by the new restrictions on their activities. The Iraqi order runs “contrary to the spirit and practice of our last several months of operations,” Maj. Gen. Daniel P. Bolger, commander of the Baghdad division, wrote in an e-mail obtained by The Washington Post. “Maybe something was ‘lost in translation’,” Bolger wrote. “We are not going to hide our support role in the city. I’m sorry the Iraqi politicians lied/dissembled/spun, but we are not invisible nor should we be.”
Second, as the Obama administration’s term of office stretches from months into years, the Iraq war will, willy-nilly, become its war. Failure in Iraq will become its failure. Obama will find himself having to invest in making a success of George W. Bush’s Iraq venture.
Third, just as Bush could not succeed in Iraq, neither will Obama.
Fourth, Bush will get a relative pass from historians, having given Iraq his all. Obama will be pinned more with the failure than Bush.
Finally, this could have significant electoral implications in 2010 and especially in 2012.