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Some Americans blame Obama for ISIS’s growth

Some say former President Barack Obama didn’t negotiate hard with then–Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

President Obama Receives an Update on ISIS at the Pentagon
President Barack Obama delivers remarks after meeting with members of his national security team concerning ISIS at the Pentagon July 6, 2015 in Arlington, Virginia.
Drew Angerer/Pool/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There’s a lively political debate over whether the Obama administration deserves blame for the rise of ISIS.

The controversy centers on the fact that former President Obama did not succeed in extending the Bush-era status of forces agreement with Iraq, which stipulated that all US troops had to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. The administration tried and failed to negotiate provisions that would have allowed the United States to leave a number of troops there.

Conservative critics blame this Obama failure for the current crisis. They say Obama didn’t try very hard to negotiate terms with then–Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But if he had, they suggest, then US forces could have severely degraded ISIS and prevented this crisis from coming to a head.

”A military presence gives the U.S. leverage to shape political outcomes,” Reihan Salam, in one of the clearest articulations of this line of criticism, argues. “The fundamental question is whether even a small contingent of U.S. troops might have reassured members of Iraq’s minority communities by shielding them from the worst excesses of a Shia-dominated government, thus undermining those calling for its violent overthrow.”

The administration’s defenders counter that major factions in the Iraqi government were dead set on the US leaving zero troops behind. No plausible amount of persuasion, they say, could have convinced key Iraqi players to back a US presence. What’s more, they say, it probably doesn’t matter. The US couldn’t stamp out ISIS even when it had a huge presence in Iraq during the war, so why should anyone believe a small residual force would have mattered?