Obama hints at military action in Iraq. Are airstrikes the only option?

Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is reportedly seeking US airstrikes to halt advancing militants amid a crisis that is challenging Obama's claim to have responsibly ended America's Middle East wars.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama answers questions on violence in Iraq during his meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Thursday, June 12, 2014, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

The stunning advance of Sunni militants who threaten to plunge Iraq into a Syria-style civil war is ringing Washington’s alarm bells over the region and posing the strongest challenge yet to President Obama’s assertion that under his presidency the US has responsibly ended its Middle East wars.

The White House has said little since Mosul, a major northern Iraqi city, was seized Tuesday by forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). On Thursday Mr. Obama suggested the deterioration in Iraq in recent days would prompt military assistance to the Iraqi government, though he did not spell out what form the aid would take.

“I do not rule out anything, because we do have a stake in making sure these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” Mr. Obama said after an Oval Office meeting with Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. “What we’ve seen over the past couple of days indicates the degree to which Iraq is going to need more help.”

That assistance will include “short-term immediate things that need to be done militarily,” Obama said, without going into detail.

After ISIS, an Al Qaeda-inspired group that already controls swaths of northeastern Syria, overran Tikrit and continued to within 100 miles of Baghdad Wednesday, a national security spokeswoman said in a statement that the US pledges full support to the embattled government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

The statement was issued after a hastily called White House meeting of national security and military officials Wednesday to take up the growing threat from the advancing and increasingly entrenched Syria-Iraq Islamist extremists.

But with Republican critics blasting Obama for a rush-from-war strategy they say threatens not just Iraq but also Afghanistan and Libya, while leaving the Syrian crisis to deepen and destabilize the region, the president may, very soon, have to get more specific than not ruling out any course of action.

On Thursday Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, a prominent hawk and interventionist, said in a furious Senate floor speech that the collapse across northern Iraq of US-trained Iraqi security forces was only further evidence of the “failure” of Obama’s Middle East strategy. The president, Senator McCain said, needs a new strategy, a new national security team, and even a new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. Maliki, the Iraqi leader, is reportedly seeking US airstrikes targeting the advancing militants, as well as an acceleration of the delivery of US arms, including awaited F-16 fighter jets. US officials say Obama is considering sending unspecified additional aid to Baghdad, with White House spokesman Jay Carney saying in a statement that the US would “continue to provide, and as required increase, assistance to the government of Iraq” to reverse the militants’ gains.

Whether or not any increase in assistance would include airstrikes – either from bombers in the region or from drones – may depend on whether or not Baghdad appears threatened in the coming days. Some US military officials say they believe the Iraqi capital will present a much different picture from Mosul or Tikrit, since it is much better fortified and is home to many elite military units.

“If you want to help Maliki, the only option left is airpower,” says retired Gen. Amos Yadlin, executive director of the Institute of National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. “But frankly I don’t see the president, after disengaging from Iraq, doing that.”

Only two weeks ago, Obama gave what the White House billed as a “major foreign policy speech” at West Point in New York in which he again extolled how his administration has ended the wars it inherited responsibly. He also laid out a cautious approach to military intervention.

Critics like McCain are laying the blame for the easy advance of jihadist forces in Iraq at Obama’s feet for having pulled out all US troops in 2011, after failing to reach an accord with Maliki on a residual US military presence. Others warn that Obama is about to repeat the Iraq “error” in Afghanistan, with a plan to leave 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year but to be fully out by the end of 2016.

“Today, thanks to Obama, Al Qaeda is resurgent in Iraq – taking back cities from which it had been driven by the blood of American soldiers [and] using Iraq as a base from which to carry out jihad in neighboring Syria,” says Marc Thiessen, a former senior aide to President George W. Bush and a research fellow in American presidential leadership at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

A similar scenario of US troops leaving a relatively stable country only to see extremist forces resurgent a few years later could also play out in a few years in Afghanistan, Mr. Thiessen says.

But others caution against attributing Iraq’s current crisis to the departure of US troops, with some saying that the Shiite Maliki’s sectarian politics and failure to build trust with Sunni tribes is a much more significant factor.  

If anyone is looking to pin Iraq’s crisis on an American action, says the INSS’s Mr. Yadlin, it makes more sense to blame it on the Bush administration decision after the 2003 invasion to disband Iraq’s military, security, and intelligence apparatus. “That is the root of the problem today,” he says.

Yadlin says the region is undergoing the inevitable crumbling of artificial borders that were drawn across the region by European powers a century ago.

A redrawing of Mideast borders may be unavoidable, but the urgent task for Obama – a president who had lofty plans for shifting American geopolitical priorities away from the Middle East – will be to see to it that no territory is ceded to a jihadist state.

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