ABC The Drum

Contrary to attacks from both the left and right, Barack Obama's cautionary tactics in the Middle East didn't create a strategic void allowing extremist Islamists to grow, writes

Barack Obama can't get a break. Having sent warplanes back into the skies of Iraq to protect helpless people from being slaughtered by Islamic extremists, the US president is copping criticism from both his left and right.

The view of the Iraq hawks — from liberal interventionists, such as his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, to neo-conservatives, such as his former Republican presidential opponent John McCain — is that the US and its principal allies Britain and Australia bear little or no responsibility for the disaster unfolding across Iraq.

In their eyes, it is Obama's fault for either failing to intervene in the Syrian civil war in 2011–13 or withdrawing US troops from Iraq in late 2011.

It is argued that by failing to authorise air strikes on Damascus and arm the rebellion against Assad's regime during the early stages of Syria's civil war, the administration created a strategic void for the extremist Islamists to exploit ruthlessly. Meanwhile, the "premature" decision to pull US forces out of Baghdad helped scuttle the semblance of sectarian peace that the Americans had brokered following the president Bush's surge of US troops in Baghdad in 2007.

Both accounts are wrong.

Start with the latter. It is true that the end of the American presence in Iraq nearly three years ago helped remove all that was keeping the sectarian rivals in check. But it is also true that the Bush administration in October 2008 pledged to withdraw all US troops by the end of 2011.

Remember, too, that during lengthy negotiations on keeping US forces engaged in Baghdad, the Iraqi government — representing a clear majority of Iraqis (not to mention its sponsors in Tehran) — demanded all remaining Americans would be subject to Iraqi law. This refusal to provide the same kind of guarantees that every nation offers to residual US forces was a condition to which no US government would agree.

Moreover, the president's withdrawal of US troops from a widely unpopular war by the end of 2011 fulfilled an election mandate. To this day, a clear majority of Americans don't think the original decision to invade was worth it, nor do they support a major intervention today.

As for Syria, the hawks maintain that if Obama had intervened more assertively, and early on in the piece, there would have been less instability and violence. Moreover, it is argued, the Islamists would never have been given opportunities to exploit vacuums in that war-torn nation.

But it's difficult to understand the logic of this argument, given that about 180,000 US and coalition troops had occupied Iraq from the invasion in 2003 to the time of withdrawal in 2011. During that period, anywhere between 150,000 and 300,000 Iraqi civilians died and more than a million fled the country.

Islamist extremists groups, such as Al Qaeda, which subsequently morphed into Islamic State, flourished during the US-led occupation. The point here is that notwithstanding an assertive US presence in Iraq — the kind of proactive, massive intervention that McCain and others have called for in Syria since 2011 — the type of barbaric and appalling things that we've witnessed in Syria also were taking place in Iraq during the US occupation: beheadings, burnings, torture, shootings, burying live people in mass graves.

Why then are Iraq and Syria so similar even though the US was heavily engaged in the former? It's because, as the distinguished American historian of Syria Joshua Landis argues, the long-time minority rulers in both nations have nothing left to lose.

With the US-led invasion in 2003, the sectarian balance was radically altered, so much so much that the Sunnis became the new political losers in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. The result: they embraced an insurgency that fought against first the US occupation and then the Shiah ascendancy it had facilitated. A long bloody civil war has ensured.

The same thing has been happening in Syria since the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 encouraged a rebellion that threatened to topple Bashar al-Assad's minority regime. The Alawites, the ruling sect in Syria — like Iraq's Sunni Arab sects such as the former Baathists — are fighting tooth and nail in a battle for survival. It is really not clear how US intervention in Syria would have made things better.

None of this is to imply that forceful action is never justified: it is in the right circumstances and when the right conditions are met. But contrary to Obama's critics, the American national interest did not require a major US intervention in Syria, the political support for it did not exist and could not be mobilised, and the conflict itself has been morally ambiguous: a brutal dictatorship, backed by Shiite Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, versus a largely Islamist rebellion supported by Sunni powers as well as Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters.

Given that the political objective in Syria was perilously unclear, and notwithstanding the president's vacillation over whether he should honour the red lines to which he had committed, there was much to be said for Obama's policy of restraint and caution. As he warned a year ago precisely:

Sometimes what we've seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.

The president should bear that advice in mind as he contemplates his next moves in Iraq.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum