Obama's Iraq plan: a middle path from a conflicted president

Obama does not want to get the US involved in Iraq again, but he also knows the threat presented by a civil war there. His plan announced Thursday weighs those concerns.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama pauses while speaking about the situation in Iraq Thursday in the White House in Washington.

So American boots are about to be back on the ground in Iraq – but no more than a few hundred, and not in a combat role.

President Obama announced Thursday that he intends to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq to help the beleaguered Iraqi military regroup and stave off advancing forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). The advisers, likely to be made up of Special Forces, will also provide intelligence to US military assets in the region should more direct action – such as air strikes – eventually be deemed necessary.

But the president was emphatic that the steps he was announcing do not constitute the US military’s reinvolvement in Iraq’s conflict, insisting that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq.”  

The modest action, announced by Mr. Obama Thursday afternoon, reflects a president who is extremely reluctant to reengage America in the Iraq conflict he likes to claim he ended, but who is also mindful of the dire consequences that a Sunni extremist victory in Iraq could pose to the US and to US interests in the region.

Obama said the limited role of the military advisers would be to “train, advise, and support” the Iraqi military. But he also suggested that the US personnel would be gathering intelligence so that the US can be “prepared to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine the situation on the ground requires it.”

Even as the president spoke, the US was conducting manned reconnaissance flights in Iraq with aircraft from the USS George H.W. Bush, which Obama dispatched to the Persian Gulf last week.

The president’s tone carried less urgency than a statement he delivered on Iraq last Friday, in which he had suggested that US air strikes to halt ISIS militants could be imminent. Thursday’s statement reflected growing confidence among US officials that Iraq’s security forces in Baghdad were not about to be overrun or to simply give up the fight, as had occurred in the north.

To a certain degree, the deployment of a few hundred military advisers constitutes a scaled-down military presence of the kind Obama had considered leaving in Iraq at the end of 2011. But the US was unable to come to an agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the legal limits of such a residual force.

Some Republican critics have insisted that Iraq might not be in such dire straits if Obama had left a residual military force in the country. Obama said Thursday that pulling out all US forces “wasn’t a decision made by me, that was a decision made by the Iraqi government.”

He said the real work of stabilizing Iraq would have to come from Iraqis themselves, as well as from regional actors with a role in the Iraqi conflict.  

Obama announced that he would send Secretary of State John Kerry to the region and Europe this weekend, underscoring his plans to continue emphasizing diplomacy. One issue Mr. Kerry will presumably need to address is the material and financial support that the Sunni militants have been reaping from the region’s Sunni powers, including Saudi Arabia and the Qataris, regional experts say.

“Secretary Kerry is going to be taking the message that it’s up to the regional countries to stand up and help solve this – and not continue to act in ways that feed what is now one big civil war in Syria and Iraq,” says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq expert. “For starters, the Saudis and the Qataris have to stop funding ISIS.”

Turkey has also acted in ways that fed the bleeding of Syria’s civil war into Iraq, Mr. Barkey adds, noting that Turkey has allowed Sunni militants from Syria to cross its borders into Iraq.

The US military advisers heading to Iraq will be tasked with helping Iraqi military leaders get their command structure back in order after it melted down last week in northern Iraq. They will also gather intelligence so the US does not have to rely on Iraqi intelligence, administration officials say.

Presumably, another role for the military forces will be to reconnect with the Sunni tribes and leaders that worked with the US a decade ago to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Barkey, now a professor of international relations at LeHigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., says the military advisers' objectives are bound to multiply the longer they stay.

“There is an element of mission creep built into this [deployment], whether we like it or not,” Barkey says.

He assumes, for example, that at some point the Iraqi government “will want to take back Mosul,” the major northern city taken by ISIS last week. “And you can see how the Iraqis would need American help, from the air and so on, to do that.”

Obama acknowledged the risk Thursday, saying, “We always have to guard against mission creep.”

But he said the main reason the US would not fall into a trap of deeper involvement is that no amount of US military involvement is ever going to solve Iraq’s internal political divides. “Ultimately,” he said, “this is something that is going to have to be solved by the Iraqis.”

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