Iraq, a War Obama Didn’t Want, Shaped His Foreign Policy

But from Afghanistan to the Arab Spring, from China to counterterrorism, the lessons of that war still hang over the administration’s foreign policy — shaping, and sometimes limiting, how the president projects American power in the world.

The war that Mr. Obama never wanted to fight has weighed on internal debates, dictated priorities and often narrowed options for the United States, according to current and former administration officials.

Most tangibly, the swift American drawdown in Iraq will influence how the United States handles the endgame in Afghanistan, where NATO forces have agreed to hand over security and pull out by 2014. The fact that the troops are leaving Iraq without a wholesale breakdown in security, some analysts said, may embolden a war-weary administration to move up the timetable for getting out of Afghanistan.

It has also shifted the balance of power in Washington, from the military commanders, who were desperate to leave a residual force of soldiers in Iraq, toward Mr. Obama’s civilian advisers, who are busy calculating how getting them all home by Christmas might help their boss’s re-election bid.

“There used to be a hot debate over even setting a timetable,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. While he cautioned that Iraq is not a perfect precedent for Afghanistan, “there should be no doubt about our commitment to follow through on the timelines we set in Afghanistan,” he said.

Mr. Rhodes, who wrote Mr. Obama’s foreign policy speeches during his 2008 campaign, said Iraq was a “dramatically underrepresented element of the way in which people look at Obama’s foreign policy.” As a candidate whose opposition to the war helped define him, Mr. Rhodes said, “Senator Obama constructed an entire argument of foreign policy, based on Iraq.”

His argument had two central pillars: that Iraq had taken the United States’ eye off the real battle in Afghanistan, and that it had diminished the United States’ standing in the world. This led directly to two of the administration’s most significant foreign policy and national security projects: Mr. Obama’s lethal counterterrorism strategy and his recent series of diplomatic and military initiatives in Asia.

The drone strikes and commando raids that the president recently boasted had killed “22 out of 30 top Al Qaeda leaders,” including Osama bin Laden, were honed in the night raids by American troops on militants in Iraq.

Mr. Obama’s emphasis on restoring the United States’ place in Asia grew out of a post-Iraq “strategic rebalancing” pushed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon. The war, they contend, sucked American time and resources from other parts of the world, allowing China to expand its sway throughout much of the Pacific Rim.

In the early days of his presidency, as Mr. Obama weighed more troop deployments in Afghanistan, he was still heavily influenced by commanders like Gen. David H. Petraeus, who was fresh off his successful “surge” in Iraq and pressed for an ambitious counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

“Here was a general who, in Petraeus’s case, had turned around a situation dramatically in Iraq, and was offering to do it again,” said Bruce O. Riedel, who ran the White House’s initial policy review on Afghanistan.

By 2011, however, Mr. Obama had developed his own views about the use of military force. His reluctant intervention in Libya — only after receiving the imprimatur of the Arab League, and then with limited military engagement — bore the hallmarks of a post-Iraq operation. In Syria, where a dictator in the Baathist tradition of Saddam Hussein has killed his own people, the United States has not considered a no-fly zone, let alone broader military intervention.

“The larger legacy of Iraq was that the U.S. military cannot shape outcomes,” said Vali Nasr, a former senior adviser in the State Department. “That led to skittishness on our part about using the military.” NYT