President Obama weighs 'do nothing' option in Iraq

There's pressure for US air strikes in Iraq. But some current and former US military commanders, including Gen. David Petraeus, are making a case for doing nothing.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama meets with (from l.) Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California, and Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday to discuss Iraq.

President Obama distanced himself Wednesday from increasingly robust calls for air strikes in Iraq, opting against imminent US military action in favor of taking a breath.

He will use this time to evaluate US options, he said in a meeting of four top lawmakers Wednesday. In the meantime, some current and former military commanders are stepping forward to make “the case for doing nothing” in Iraq.

Former commander of US forces in Iraq, retired Gen. David Petraeus, was one of the most notable voices cautioning against the use of military force Wednesday, saying the Pentagon should step in only if the Iraqi government could get the politics right.

“This cannot be the United States being the ‘Air Force’ for Shia militias,” he told an audience in London. 

It was a message that was apparent, too, in the wait-and-see warnings earlier in the day from America’s top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

“What I would recommend is that anytime we use US military force, we use it for those things that are in our national interest,” he told lawmakers in testimony on Capitol Hill. “That’s the standard.”

At the moment, a military strike is not in America’s interest, especially when good intelligence is tough to come by and the US military could be seen as propping up a corrupt regime.

“Until we can clarify the intelligence picture,” General Dempsey added, “the options will continue to be refined.” 

What is clear, he said, is that at least two full divisions of Iraqi soldiers “did, in fact, throw down their arms, and in some cases collude with – in some cases simply desert – in northern Iraq.”

This is a problem that goes beyond murky intelligence and the courage to fight: It is the rational lack of desire on the part of Iraqi soldiers to fight for sectarian leaders, Dempsey posited. “They had simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair, equitable way that provided hope for all of them.” 

There has also been a touch of hands-in-the-air schadenfreude among US officials who pointed to the decision of the Iraqi government to refuse terms that would allow US troops to stay, even after the US spent $25 billion training and equipping Iraqi soldiers and police. 

“We have done everything we could to help them, but it’s up to the Iraqis – they wanted to manage and govern their own country,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers. “So I don’t think we should assign the blame to the United States for this.” 

In a Politico essay this week headlined, “The Case for Doing Nothing in Iraq,” Barry Posen, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, warned against the penchant for “America’s pundit class to demand action – usually of the military variety” whenever there’s a crisis anywhere in the world. “Don’t just stand there, bomb something!” he deemed it.

Perhaps, columnist Tom Friedman posited in the New York Times, the US should leave the heavy lifting to Iran since, well, they asked for it. “It was Iran that armed its Iraqi Shiite allies with the specially shaped bombs that killed and wounded many American soldiers. Iran wanted us out. It was Iran that pressured [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki into not signing an agreement with the US to give our troops legal cover to stay in Iraq,” he wrote. “Now your forces are overextended in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, and ours are back home. Have a nice day.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina called for some old-fashioned diplomacy, suggesting that the US might begin a dialogue with Iran. “This is a time where the Iranians in a small way might help,” he offered Wednesday. “They’re thugs and killers,” he added. “But we are where we are.”

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