Air strikes can't solve Iraq's problems, Obama says. So what's the point?

Air strikes to address the crisis in northern Iraq don't signal a change of strategy for Obama toward a military solution, experts say. They are an 'interim fix.'

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama arrives to deliver a statement on the situation in Iraq from his vacation compound at Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts Monday.

President Obama’s strategy for stabilizing Iraq and repelling the Islamic State militants gaining ground there is based on the premise that Iraq’s core challenge is political, and that no amount of US assistance will make a difference until Baghdad has a new inclusive government.

“There is no military solution to the crisis in Iraq,” Mr. Obama reiterated in a statement from his vacation on Martha's Vineyard Monday.

But with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refusing to step down and make way for a new government, and with a double whammy of security and humanitarian disasters looming as a result of marauding Islamic State forces, the Obama administration is shifting its immediate focus to the threatened and politically more palatable autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north.

That does not mean Mr. Obama is changing his strategy, officials and analysts with close knowledge of the administration say. Rather, they say the administration is addressing the immediate threat even as it keeps up diplomatic pressure on Mr. Maliki.

“The president’s overall policy is absolutely unchanged, it’s still a strategy based on the need for a political solution to Iraq’s crisis, and I wouldn’t see the attention to Kurdistan as the president writing off Baghdad,” says Kenneth Pollack, an expert in Iraqi political military affairs at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “What we’re seeing is an interim fix to be sure the KRG [Kurdistan Regional Government] does not lose any more territory to” the Islamic State, he adds. “This is about military expediency.”   

That shift became apparent Monday as administration officials confirmed that the US has begun supplying arms directly to Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga. Until now, any US arms to the Kurds have officially been routed through the Iraqi military.

Some US weaponry has begun reaching Kurdish forces outside that channel – presumably through the CIA. The Pentagon is likely to begin supplying the peshmerga directly at some point soon, some officials said Monday.

“It’s the threat to the Kurds that’s worsened over the last week that forced [the administration] to adjust, from first the air strikes and now to weapons,” says Mr. Pollack. “The US needs to get weapons to the Kurds, and to get weapons to them ASAP.”

Obama in June announced he was deploying teams of military advisers to Iraq to work with the Iraqi security forces on reversing the Islamic State’s stunning gains – including its takeover of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. The US also moved to expedite shipments of arms purchased by the Iraqi government, administration officials said.

But the focus on the Kurdish north became a necessity last week as the Islamic State advanced to within miles of the Kurdish capital of Erbil – where the US has a consulate and teams of military advisers. At the same time, Obama wanted to avert the “potential genocide” of Iraq’s Yezidi and other ethnic and religious minorities in the north threatened by the radical Sunnis of the Islamic State.

Despite that, Obama’s Iraq strategy remains focused on political reform in Baghdad. The thinking is that the vacuum that allowed the Islamic State to sweep into Iraq’s Sunni regions can only be reversed by an inclusive government that brings in Sunni populations alienated by Maliki, a Shiite.

Obama reiterated on Saturday his conviction that “there’s going to have to be an Iraqi solution” to Iraq’s crisis, and that “the nature of this problem is not one our military can solve.”

On Monday, the US sharpened its disavowal of Maliki. Vice President Joe Biden assured Iraqi President Fuad Masum that the US supports his selection, “as guarantor of the Iraqi constitution,” of the Shiite parliamentarian Haider al-Abadi to become Iraq’s next prime minister. Maliki rejected Mr. Masum’s selection Monday and insisted he will stay for a third term in office.

Speaking to both Mr. Masum and Mr. Abadi, Mr. Biden said resolution of Iraq’s political crisis would allow the US “to boost coordination with a new Iraqi government and creation of a new inclusive government and Iraqi Security Forces to roll back gains” by the Islamic State, the White House said.     

Obama also spoke with Abadi Monday, urging him to form a new government “as soon as possible.” Obama made no mention of Maliki in his statement.

Linking increased American assistance to formation of a new government is the right approach, some analysts say – even though it includes many risks. “President Obama’s strategy of tying the level of US military support to the creation of a new Iraqi government and dumping Maliki is the right one,” says Anthony Cordesman, an international security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

What the administration is dealing with is “the last gasp of Iraqi unity,” says Pollack of Brookings, who says the only way to keep Iraq together – which is the best way to deal with the Islamic State – is a political accord “that brings Sunnis back into the government.”

Still, the US may find itself having “to live with Maliki as better than the Islamic State” if Maliki somehow hangs on, Mr. Cordesman writes in a commentary.

Even in the case of an Iraq “that will not seriously try to heal and help itself,” Obama will still have to act to avoid calamity in Iraq, Cordesman says, although “the odds will scarcely be good.”

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