Back to Iraq?

Conflict Poses a Policy Challenge for Obama

In an address to West Point graduates in May, President Barack Obama articulated his vision of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy. Attempting to steer a course between a self-defeating isolationism and an incautious interventionism, the president argued that it would be wrong to send troops “into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

In many ways, the speech was Obama’s response to those who have called for U.S. military intervention in Syria. The president resisted those demands, as he has recently in the Ukraine, and before that in Egypt. One of the hallmarks of Obama’s presidency has been his reluctance to send U.S. troops into combat if there is no clear-cut and realistic objective. He was elected in part to wind down two of the longest wars in American history, a promise he has largely kept. The current situation in Iraq, however, may yet pull the United States back into that country, and thus threatens to undermine Obama’s efforts to reorient American foreign policy.

In mid-June, an offshoot of Al Qaeda took control of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city; it would go on to take Tikrit and several other towns on its march from the Syrian border southeast toward Baghdad. The group, composed of Sunni militants who call themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), formed in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. As Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—a Shiite—increasingly shut Sunnis out of his government, ISIS’s resolve strengthened. By alienating Sunnis, Maliki inadvertently helped ISIS, which found Sunni tribal leaders eager to partner with the group to drive Iraqi troops out of northern and western Iraq. ISIS now threatens Baghdad and the Shiite-controlled government the United States left behind.

Predictably, Republicans blame Obama for this resurgence of Iraq’s sectarian civil war. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) demanded that the president’s entire national-security team resign. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.) urged immediate airstrikes. “The next 9/11 is coming from here,” he predicted. That’s why, as Rep. Mike Rogers (R.-Mich.) claimed, “it’s too late to have long political reconciliation meetings.” In an op-ed, former vice president Dick Cheney wrote, “Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many.”

But other, more fair-minded critics have also argued that Obama did not push Maliki hard enough to allow residual U.S. forces to remain in Iraq to help the Iraqi army maintain stability in the region. (American combat troops withdrew in 2011, according to the terms of an agreement signed by George W. Bush.) It seems unlikely, however, that a small contingent of U.S. troops would have made much difference so long as Maliki insisted on marginalizing the Sunnis and grabbing as much power as he could. The Sunnis do not trust Maliki, and for good reason.

At a June 19 press conference, Obama stressed that long-term Iraqi stability can come only through political reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites. He pledged that American combat troops would not return to Iraq. But he also announced that he would send three hundred “advisers”—reportedly Navy SEALs and Army Rangers—to assist the Iraqi military. “We will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it,” Obama explained. That may sound bellicose, but the president is being realistic. ISIS may not be poised to launch “the next 9/11,” but it is well armed and well funded—and its ranks are growing. If it establishes a stronghold in an ungovernable part of Iraq, the United States will have to watch carefully. Surely the task of guarding America’s vital interests is better handled by its enormous intelligence and security apparatus than by launching another invasion in the Middle East.

During his press conference, Obama readily acknowledged the danger of “mission creep,” and promised that the United States would not take sides in a sectarian war. Echoing his West Point speech, he cautioned: “What’s clear from the last decade is the need for the United States to ask hard questions before we take action abroad.” Many Americans welcome the president’s determination to avoid entangling the nation in another misadventure in the Middle East. But if he is to stay true to his own foreign-policy doctrine—if he is to show that the United States has learned something from the long and largely misguided “war on terror”—he needs to explain in much greater detail what sort of threat would compel him to order military action in Iraq.



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"....he needs to explain in much greater detail what sort of threat would compel him to order military action in Iraq."

This will depend on the severity of the threat to the U.S. and its Allies. Take Iran as an example. If it becomes clear that Iran will not limit its nuclear activities, meaning the production of material for a nucliear device, then Obama will implement more severe economic sanctions. Second, if all economic sanctions don't work Obama will consider a naval blockade or use targeted air strikes rather than commit boots-on-the-ground. This could lead to more military action. The alternative is to risk a nuclear Iran and the possiblity that radical elements might gain and use a nuclear bomb against the U.S.

What we have learned from our ventures in the Middle East is that democracy does not work in countries that have been historically ruled by one party or person. Call it a dictatorship or monarchy, but people in this part of the world often are divided by religious and ethinc issues, such as the profound hatred between Sunnis and Shites. This could change and every effort to make a democratic-style of govenment work in places like Iraq cannot be ruled out given enough time.

The U.S. will have to find more effective ways to forster peaceful co-existence and prevent another 9/11. The Palistinian-Israel conflict is a major issue that influences conflict in the region. It must be resolved but the U.S. to date has not been very effective in bringing both sides together. Military action is not the answer.

Not only will Obama President have his hands full over the next 3 years, but the next President of the U.S. as well. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.



If American troops withdrew from Iraq in 2011 according to an agreement signed by Presheent G.W.  Bush, then how can Obama claim he ended the Iraqi war and why does Commonweal still support this fiction?

Well, if I understand the situation correctly, the deal was made under the Bush administration to take place in a phased in withdrawal under whoever governed in the next administration. I suppose Obama could have changed the deal if he wanted. It is also my understanding that we didn't leave the residual 10,000 troops because Maliki wouldn't sign off on the troops being governed by military law as opposed to Iraqui law.



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