To Explain Iraq's Crisis, Some Lawmakers Point To 2011 Withdrawal

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The Obama administration is drawing criticism from Republicans for its handling of the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. NPR's Arun Rath speaks with national political correspondent Mara Liasson about the administrations choices and the possible political consequences for the President.


Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, reportedly asked President Obama for U.S. airstrikes to help put down the uprising. Of course, when it comes to the U.S. military getting involved in Iraq there's some baggage. Here's what the president had to say yesterday.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will not be sending U.S. troops back into combat in Iraq. But I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraq security forces, and I'll be reviewing those options in the days ahead.

RATH: Today, the Pentagon sent an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf in case the president decides to order a military strike.

NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins me to make sense of the politics. Mara, the president said he's considering a range of options. But for right now, the immediate future, the plan is to do nothing. Is that a safe option?

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Well, the plan is to do nothing, at least for the next couple of days, while he reviews his options. He says there are some short-term, immediate things that the U.S. could do. Presumably that would be drone strikes or airstrikes, sending some equipment to Iraq. But the president says that all of that is going to be conditional on the Iraqi government making some reforms. But re-engaging in Iraq would be a pretty stunning turnaround for a president who's been trumpeting the end of the war as one of his signal achievements. And it's probably fair to say that he has very few options and no good ones.

RATH: Right. And what is it going to mean for the president and his party if Iraq were to implode just months before the midterms?

LIASSON: First of all, foreign policy itself is not an issue in these individual Senate races or House races. That being said, it does matter what the president's approval ratings are, and these foreign policy problems really do hurt the president's standing in the public. I mean, he has these famous last words that he uttered in 2011, that the U.S. was leaving behind a stable, sovereign and self-reliant Iraq. That certainly isn't true now.

But the big irony here is that the public actually approves of the president's policy. In other words, they don't want the U.S. to intervene anymore in the Middle East. But they disapprove of the president himself and his leadership when he does exactly what they want him to do. Then they think he looks weak. So I would say, overall, foreign policy is a liability for the president, starting with Syria, the red line that he said should never be crossed, Ukraine, the release of Bowe Bergdahl is very controversial, and now, Iraq.

RATH: Mara, as you mentioned, bringing the Iraq war to an end for the U.S. has been a big point of pride for this president. But if Iraq descends into a full-on sectarian war, what does that mean for his legacy?

LIASSON: Well, it's really going to hurt his legacy. And this is the great irony. This is the war he called the dumb war. He wanted to end it. He inherited it from President Bush, and he just can't seem to get rid of it. Everything about his approach to Iraq and Syria and the Middle East has been trying to not get drawn into sectarian strife. And here he is, being pushed right back into it.

Now Republicans have a stronger argument to make, that by getting out of Iraq too soon, by not leaving enough troops behind in Iraq, by not helping moderates in Syria when that might have helped, that he is partly responsible for this crisis. So the argument is taking hold that while Bush might have overreached, Obama has now under-reached, with potentially serious and negative consequences for his legacy.

RATH: NPR national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Mara, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you, Arun.

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