Frank Rich on the National Circus: Iraq Air Strikes, American Apathy

By
Yazidi refugees in Iraq Photo: Pacific Press/Getty Images

Every week, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Eric Benson about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the U.S. launches new airstrikes in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki faces the end of his reign, and Hillary Clinton lashes out at Obama's foreign policy.

President Obama has launched a new phase in America's involvement in Iraq, ordering air strikes on ISIS positions to prevent the slaughter of religious minorities, halt the invasion of the Kurdish territory, and protect Americans living and working in the country — most perilous, those at the consulate in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Did the president do the right thing?
The answer is yes. But before I explain why, let’s take a brief pause to remember Robin Williams. In particular, to remember this: His tragic death is the No. 1 preoccupation in the nation by far, not the plight of thousands of starving Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. Even if we are sliding back into combat in Iraq — a highly debatable point — most Americans are oblivious to it. They have turned the page on Iraq. They have turned the page on foreign policy. They don’t give a damn. It’s against that cultural-political backdrop that the president’s actions in Iraq must be seen.

This gives Obama a lot of leeway for now, and in my view he is exercising it properly and coherently. From on high, he is taking out ISIS warriors, a vicious cadre that makes Saddam Hussein’s old Republican Guard look like the Peace Corps. Obama is also arming the endangered Kurds, as always the one sane and functioning enclave in Iraq. And he is trying to rescue the Yazidis before more die from violence or starvation. Why undertake this humanitarian mission as opposed to others in the same neighborhood? That goes back to the “Pottery Barn Rule,” invoked by Colin Powell a dozen years ago when his president, George W. Bush, was inexorably moving to invade Iraq: “You break it, you own it.” We can’t allow genocide to proceed unchallenged in a country we broke and never fixed. Not that this rescue, if successful, will wipe clean the moral slate. By the most conservative estimate, more than 125,000 Iraqi civilians have died since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and, as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post has pointed out, it’s doubtful that even the vicious Saddam would have slaughtered that many Iraqis over this period if we had left him in power.

What will make the country notice, let alone care? For sure, American casualties or anything resembling a Black Hawk Down catastrophe. Some argue, as Leslie Gelb has at the Daily Beast, that a more coherent and assertive Obama could get the country to enlist in some kind of multilateral military action to stamp out the jihadis on the ground — especially if he explained how high the stakes were for their defeat. But it’s not what he ran on, it’s not what he wants, and it’s not what the American people want (John McCain and Lindsey Graham always excepted). That’s the domestic political legacy of the Iraq War. The supremacy of Robin Williams as the nation’s No. 1 news story even as we again bomb Iraq is a testament to that immutable reality.

Obama has stressed that a new Iraqi political order is crucial to solving the current crisis, and he pressed (it appears successfully) for Iraq's prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside in favor of a more-inclusive leader. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has backed heads of government — Maliki and Hamid Karzai — who seemed at first to be dependable partners but, over the years, turned into headaches if not outright enemies. With Maliki on his way out and a new Afghan president to be decided soon, both countries will soon have new leaders. Will that change anything?
There’s no way of knowing. We can only pray. America has a dreadful record of picking leaders to back abroad, of which Maliki and Karzai are only the most recent examples. Cautionary tale A for our recent disasters should have been the CIA coup in Iran in 1953 that installed the despotic Shah and set the stage for the Islamic revolution of the late 1970s, which has now stalked the West for 35 years.

And let’s not forget that Donald Rumsfeld shook hands with Saddam in Baghdad in 1983 to signal the Reagan administration’s tilt toward Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Here we are some 30 years later, and the “democracy” we built in Iraq is a staunch Iran ally. Irony is too weak a word to describe that folly. Will Iraq change with Maliki’s departure? Will his successor create the equitable Sunni-Shia-Kurdish coalition that might save the country from permanent war? Even in exile, Maliki and/or his Iranian backers will remain a force within Iraq. The notion that Maliki’s departure — or Karzai’s in Afghanistan — is some kind of “game change” is an American hope based on the undying American fantasy that foreign cultures are eager to emulate American values and politics.

In the current issue of the magazine, you write that based on Hillary Clinton's bland and conflict-free memoir, Hard Choices, the presumptive presidential candidate thinks voters want her to be "a cautious, unspontaneous caretaker of all things good and true who will never run a yellow light or frighten the horses. On Sunday, The Atlantic published an interview with Clinton in which she criticized President Obama for his foreign policy approach, and took him to task especially for his handling of the Syrian Civil War. Have we just seen the real Hillary Clinton stand up? Or was this merely a calculated move as part of a calculated and unsurprising rollout to distance herself from the less-than-popular president?
So much for this short-lived Sister Souljah moment: True to form, Clinton is already backpedaling from her interview to The Atlantic. Whatever Obama’s national approval rating, it is high among Democrats (as is Hillary’s) and she needs to keep crucial parts of that base, starting with young voters, enthusiastically on her side. What her criticism of Obama showed in any case was that she has learned little if anything from her catastrophic misjudgment in endorsing the rush to war in Iraq. She remains an instinctual hawk. What was particularly priceless was her criticism that Obama’s foreign policy lacked an “organizing principle.” What is hers? Elsewhere in that same interview she came out bravely for “peace, progress, and prosperity.” There’s an organizing principle for you!

Meanwhile, the world now breathlessly awaits her rapprochement with the president at Vernon Jordan’s big blowout on Martha’s Vineyard tonight. I am hoping Fox News in particular will sneak in to provide live play-by-play coverage.