The days of reckoning have arrived for the United States in Iraq. Again.
For more than two decades, presidents have had a habit of getting entangled there, starting with George H.W. Bush who ordered a massive military attack to drive dictator Saddam Hussein’s forces out of Kuwait in 1991. George W. Bush ordered the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 on what turned out to be a failed mission to find weapons of mass destruction that weren’t there. Bush’s war resulted in the toppling of Hussein, but the conflict lasted for nine years and opened up sectarian and religious divisions. Now President Barack Obama is struggling with still another crisis in Iraq as that country descends into a civil war.
On Wednesday, Obama met privately with congressional leaders to discuss the way forward, and one thing that everyone could agree on is that the options are dangerous and complex. Launching air strikes is one possibility, and the Iraqi government in Baghdad has already asked the United States to use air power to stop the insurgents.
Other choices include the use of U.S. special forces, and additional help with intelligence and surveillance. But there are no easy answers, and White House aides say Obama is carefully considering what to do.
The Iraq crisis comes at a bad time for Obama, whose reputation as an effective commander in chief has been slipping. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released Wednesday, found that the percentage of Americans approving of Obama’s handling of foreign affairs has declined to the lowest level of his presidency.
Fifty-seven percent disapprove of his foreign policy, and only 37 percent approve. The survey was taken before the latest round of setbacks for the U.S.-backed government of Iraq in its battle with Sunni insurgents, so Obama’s rating at this moment could be even worse than the poll suggests.
In addition, many Americans have been troubled by Obama’s handling of crises in Syria and Ukraine, deteriorating relations with Russia, setbacks in Middle East peacemaking, questions about whether Iran is serious about ending its nuclear weapons program, and the recent swap of U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl, being held by the Taliban, for five Taliban detainees being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Americans don't want the United States to go back to war in Iraq. That's clear from the polls, and Obama is following the wishes of the electorate when he says he won't use combat troops to intervene.
But Obama's reputation as a leader is suffering because of all the problems erupting on his watch and public disappointment with his response. His job approval rating is only 41 percent, tying his low.
Perhaps most troubling for Obama and fellow Democrats, 54 percent of Americans say Obama “cannot lead and get the job done,” while only 42 percent say he can lead and be effective, according to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
“Whether it’s [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, Ukraine, the VA hospitals, Bowe Bergdahl, the events have controlled Obama, rather than Obama having controlled events,” said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who helped conduct the NBC/Wall Street Journal survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff.
“He may be winning the issues debate, but he’s losing the political debate, because they don’t see him as a leader.”