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Bush isn't to blame for Obama's latest Iraq problems

As Oliver Hardy used to tell Stan Laurel is those old black-and-white movie comedies, "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!"

That continues to be Barack Obama's refrain to his predecessor, George W. Bush, as he struggles in his sixth year in the Oval Office to bring about the change in Washington he promised in 2008.

Mr. Obama's latest quandary is how to cope with Iraq's Islamist insurgency and revived sectarian conflict in the war he essentially declared over in 2011 by withdrawing the last American fighting troops. He is talking about dispatching some sort U.S. military power short of "boots on the ground" as critics fill the air with we-told-you-sos about that combat pull-out.

President Obama's failure to get desired guarantees of security for residual American forces from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is blamed for the current fiasco and the resulting crumbling of the U.S.-trained Iraqi army, bereft of American supervision. His adversaries have not quite yet accused Mr. Obama of cutting and running, but predictably that will come.

Some regard it as sour grapes when Mr. Obama as Ollie reminds his fellow Americans that Stanley got us into this mess with his invasion of Iraq 11 years ago. Then was then and now is now, and Harry Truman's declaration of where the buck stops still holds.

Six years after Mr. Bush left office, his misadventure has faded into the background like a bad dream, and he has kept his head down and his mouth largely shut. He pops up only occasionally, as in showing up to witness his 90-year-old father, the 41st president, complete his latest bizarre parachute jump.

But there's nothing particularly comical about the continuing quagmire in which Obama's presidency struggles. Except for his historic achievement in enacting broad health-care insurance reform, his domestic record has been slim. Even that accomplishment was seriously marred by the bungled rollout, giving the Republicans a political get-out-of-jail-free card looking to November's congressional elections.

In general, President Obama has found himself increasingly cast as a well-meaning but overwhelmed young president often trapped in his own rhetoric. Good intentions have not been matched by decisive action, particularly in his handling of foreign affairs.

Except for the imperative response to the 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil, American involvement in wars abroad for more than a decade, with no end in sight, has not been clearly in the national interest. As Mr. Obama strives to focus his second term on domestic needs and concerns, the world beyond our shores continues to pull him back into conflicts, in ways he can't so justifiably blame on his White House predecessor.

For a while Ukraine appeared to be the scene of the next international crisis, but the latest insurgency reawakened in Iraq and yanked Mr. Obama back, even as he proceeds with plans to pull troops from Afghanistan. He can't blame that on Mr. Bush, either.

Yet, after publicly declaring his determination to become more selective about where and when to use American military power, current events are facing the president with unpleasant options across the board.

In agreeing to the much-criticized prisoner swap with the Taliban leadership in Afghanistan without prior congressional notification, Mr. Obama has opened yet another door for his critics to question his judgment, and his timing.

In all, the president does have ample grounds to lament the foreign policy landscape so badly torn up by President Bush's ill-conceived and bungled war of choice in Iraq. But like it or not, dealing with it comes with the job he sought. How Mr. Obama works his way out of his sea of challenges will determine how history will record the quality of his presidency, and time and events are not on his side right now.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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