President's foreign policy intentions lie in ruins

Now that the usual vows of good intentions are over between President Barack Obama and the elected Republican leaders of the House and Senate — all vowing willingness to work together to break the long legislative stalemate on Capitol Hill — the question is: Will they really happen?

The best hope is that the newly empowered Republicans, hoping to counter the brand of negativism that haunted them throughout the Obama administration, will swiftly put forward their own legislative agenda and bring much of it up for a vote in both houses.


Such an initiative would be expected to include, beyond the effort to repeal and replace Obamacare (which faces a certain presidential veto), some immigration and tax reforms that could survive partisan quarreling. Mr. Obama recognizes it's in his interest, too, to demonstrate that the wheels of government are not going to remain stuck in the mud forever. His own political legacy is at stake, especially after the whipping he took from voters last week.

That legacy will include what he has done to achieve his major foreign-policy objective, which from the start has been detouring from the disastrous course the nation took under by his predecessor, George W. Bush, with his 2003 invasion of Iraq. That misadventure, based on flawed intelligence of a threat of weapons of mass destruction, has been an albatross around Mr. Obama's neck throughout his presidency.


In 2009, the new president embraced Mr. Bush's imperative 2001 retaliation in Afghanistan against the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. But from the outset, Mr. Obama was determined to extricate this country from both wars by pivoting back to a policy of multilateral military action. World events, however, did not accommodate him as he had hoped.

The conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq dragged on, though Mr. Obama did move to withdraw U.S. combat forces from both, taking much heat from conservative critics who saw those pullouts as premature and militarily risky. Yet he pressed on with both, completing the Iraqi departure of armed "boots on the ground" in Iraq in 2011 and shooting for the same in Afghanistan later.

But the American effort to rearm and retrain a disbanded Iraqi army after the fall of Saddam Hussein proved a dismal failure under Iraqi leader Nouri al-Maliki. Iraqi forces crumbled under a resurgent Sunni movement eventually calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Mr. Obama's dream of getting the United States off what he called a perpetual or permanent war footing evaporated with the emergence of the new threat.

The callous beheadings of captive Americans by Islamic State militants dictated continued U.S. armed engagement, mostly in the form of repeated bombings by unmanned drones, with Mr. Obama clinging to his decision not to put "boots on the ground" in Iraq or Syria against growing Islamic State forces in both places.

The plans drawn up by the Pentagon to carry out Mr. Obama's orders to "degrade and eventually destroy" the Islamic State, which did not exist under that name when Mr. Obama became president, are now said to be a long-range objective likely to far outlast his presidency, under a Republican or a Democrat.

The man who as America's first black president gained the Oval Office as an antiwar candidate declaring the Iraq invasion an unnecessary, "dumb" enterprise now finds himself committed to pressing on with it. He says he will ask Congress for a new authorization for the use of military force against the Islamic State, to replace the one Mr. Bush got from Congress to carry on his own ultimately botched war in Iraq, and it's likely to trigger considerable debate.

Mr. Obama's lofty 2008 campaign to change the way Washington works, and to roll back American use of armed muscle abroad, has turned into a most bitter pill for him to swallow. The two-plus years left for him to achieve either objective, or at least to destroy the Islamic State, seems woefully insufficient 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