BASILE: Ghosts of Iraq haunt Obama campaign

Political decisions in military matters add one more nail in the coffin

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America’s mission in Iraq may have ended but the Iraq War is far from over for President Obama. During his brief tenure in the Senate, Mr. Obama called for a precipitous with-drawal of our forces by the end of 2007. In 2008, he campaigned on a platform of bringing American troops home and closing the book on Iraq. Mr. Obama accomplished the former, but Iraq’s domestic political environment and increasingly close relationship with Iran may inject the war-torn nation back into the American political discourse.

The situation is a tragic reminder of just how fragile the country was when Mr. Obama opted to end any significant involvement in its future. It also may give Mitt Romney and the Republicans an opportunity to open an effective foreign policy front against the administration for leaving Iraq in the lurch and providing an opportunity for Iran to extend its influence in the region.

Dec. 15, 2011, saw an official end to U.S. military involvement in Iraq, and the fulfillment of one of Mr. Obama’s central campaign promises. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta’s words ring as true now as when he formally marked the end to the U.S. mission in Iraq, stating, “Iraq will be tested in the days ahead - by terrorism and by those who would seek to divide, by economic and social issues, by the demands of democracy itself.”

Mr. Panetta also said clearly that the United States “will be there to stand by the Iraqi people as they navigate those challenges. …” In the days since, Iraq has been thrown to the wolves.

The months following the U.S. troop withdrawal have seen spikes in sectarian violence. Nearly 1,500 civilians have been killed since December. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s steady consolidation of power and disregard for a carefully brokered power-sharing agreement has hopelessly divided the parliament. Meanwhile, Iraq’s new regional allies, cultivated during the U.S. mission, are now growing increasingly uncomfortable with Mr. Maliki’s closeness with Iran.

Iran’s influence in Iraq is not a new development. Tehran had been killing U.S. troops, working to equip insurgents and trying to mold the political situation for years. With the United States all but disengaged, that influence has been permitted to increase under Mr. Maliki.

Today, Iran is busily calling in favors among its allied factions in Iraq, and exerting its significant religious and economic influence in an attempt to block Mr. Maliki’s opponents from ousting the Shia leader or calling for a vote of no confidence.

Thus far, despite continued reports of human rights abuses being carried out by Mr. Maliki’s henchmen and the continued suppression of free press, the Obama administration has remained silent, hoping the American people won’t notice that their investment in Iraq may end up in the hands of the Iranians.

This is what happens when you make military and diplomatic decisions based on domestic political pressures. It emboldens your enemies and weakens your position. Thanks to Mr. Obama, the United States is learning this the hard way. We lost our voice and our influence the moment we left Baghdad, which, coincidentally, was also the precise moment Mr. Maliki’s son ordered tanks to surround the homes of Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and two other senior opposition leaders.

The call to take a more aggressive diplomatic stance again on Iraq is growing, though the White House is turning a deaf ear.

This is a political season and the president sees Iraq like everything else: through the lens of the campaign. While it is in the president’s interest to avoid speaking about Iraq, Republicans would do well to leverage the current political and sectarian unrest to attack Mr. Obama’s foreign policy as too driven by domestic considerations, and impetuous, naive and shortsighted. The debate in 2004 was whether the United States should have invaded. In 2012, the question may be whether we withdrew so precipitously that we’ve endangered everything our brave men in uniform struggled and died to achieve.

Iraq’s downward political spiral will empower Iran. The president has shown a lack of leadership on both issues. Even with jobs, the economy and massive debt taking front and center in the 2012 campaign, don’t be surprised if, as it has in the past, Iraq comes roaring back to become a major point of contention.

Thomas J. Basile served as an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad from 2003-2004.

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