09.19.14

Obama’s Backtrack Record Raises Questions on Iraq Policy

The Obama walkback has become a familiar dance step in Washington these last six years.

First, President Barack Obama makes a promise or a threat. Close Guantanamo Bay in a year, retaliate against Syrian chemical attacks on civilians, take executive action to legalize millions of undocumented workers by the end of this month.

Then, when criticism and reality set in, he changes course.

That emboldens political adversaries, infuriates allies and leads both to question whether his latest promise -– that U.S. combat troops won’t be used to fight Islamic State -– can be kept.

Many Democrats say they fear he or his successor won’t be able to hold the line. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, inflamed those worries this week by saying he might recommend “U.S. military ground forces” if the current plan fails.

“I’ve always had those concerns,” Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, said. “It troubles me tremendously that these concerns are now being played out.”

Democrats point to issues on which he has delivered on promises, including the 2010 health-care and financial-regulation laws and the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy preventing gay members of the U.S. military from serving openly.

Obama’s request for authorization to support the training of Syrian rebels was cleared by the Senate yesterday. White House spokesman Eric Schultz declined to comment for this story.

Advising Iraqis

The U.S. is set to have about 1,600 military personnel to “advise and assist” Iraq’s army and protect American assets and people.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said yesterday “the president does not envision anything even approaching the kind of on-the-ground military presence” mobilized in Iraq 11 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein. Earnest said, though, the situation “can change.”

Lee, the only member of the House of Representatives to vote against the 2001 resolution authorizing the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, said her reservations about “mission creep” aren’t specific to a president.

Just last year, Obama said he wanted to repeal that 2001 resolution. Now, he’s using it to justify the use of American force in Iraq and Syria. Still, Lee said, she considers the president to be “thoughtful” and “deliberative.”

‘Every Tool’

Many Republicans say they wish Obama hadn’t ruled out the deployment of ground troops -- whether or not he intends to use them against Islamic extremist fighters.

“You ought to use every tool you have to eliminate them, not tell them what you’re not going to do,” Representative Steve Scalise, the House majority whip, said in an interview. Scalise helped round up votes for an amendment adopted on a bipartisan vote that authorizes the U.S. government to train and equip Syrian opposition forces.

His colleague, Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, echoed Scalise’s view that Obama shouldn’t preclude the possibility of a deeper engagement involving U.S. ground troops.

She said the president’s handling of immigration -- announcing he would issue an executive order, which was expected to legalize millions of undocumented people currently in the country, before backing off in a bow to the concerns of politically vulnerable Democratic senators -- follows a similar pattern.

“It’s a very schizophrenic policy,” she said. “You don’t know who is calling the shots.”

Trying to Please

One member of the Congressional Black Caucus, a bastion of support for Obama, said the president has been forced to backpedal on policy pronouncements because he’s trying to please too many people.

The lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the reaction of the president’s friends to his policy-making process, said Obama has weakened his alliances on a variety of issues by shifting positions.

Representative John Larson, a Connecticut Democrat, said Obama’s deliberative nature leads to an appearance of drift. Praising that deliberativeness, Larson said the president is “constantly being told” that he needs to be more decisive.

That puts pressure on him to take a public position, even as his decision-making process is still going on.

“He continues to hold out and want to set his own path,” Larson said. “It’s a quandary of his own making.”

Obama’s response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria in 2013 -– in which administration officials banged the drums of war, then Obama chose to ask Congress for authorization to strike and the lawmakers resisted –- ended up with the Syrian government giving up chemical weapons.

“Who had the better path?” Larson asked. “He did.”

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