Obama doubles US military presence in Iraq. Slippery slope?

President Obama is ordering more US military forces to Iraq, not to engage in direct combat but to advise, train, and equip Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State militants. For now, at least, most Americans approve.

Stringer/REUTERS
Tribal fighters take part in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants in the town of Amriyat al-Falluja in Anbar province, November 5, 2014.

President Obama, who opposed the US invasion of Iraq and did everything he could to withdraw American forces, is significantly escalating this country’s military presence there.

It’s not a reversal in policy. The threat has changed with the spread of Islamic State militants across Iraq and Syria, dominating Iraqi forces and slaughtering civilians. Administration officials and others warn that the Islamic State not only is disruptive to the region but could present a direct threat to US security.

But the doubling of the US troop level to about 3,100, with assignments across Iraq and not just around Baghdad, comes with indications that the commitment may be long-term and may continue to grow.

Speaking at the Atlantic Council in Washington Thursday, Central Command head Gen. Lloyd Austin said, "If I think we need to do more things, or if we need better capability I won't hesitate to make that recommendation to my boss.”

Still, this does not mean a combat role for the US in Iraq, officials say, nor does it represent “mission creep.”

"Even with the additional personnel, the mission is not changing," an administration official told reporters on a conference call Friday. "The mission continues to be one of training, advising, and equipping Iraqis and it's the Iraqis who are fighting on the ground in combat." 

 "This is a different model and approach to the previous efforts in Iraq when we had large-scale ground forces in combat,” the official said, referring to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, ordered by former president George W. Bush.

Unlike other Bush administration officials (especially former Vice President Dick Cheney), Mr. Bush himself has been largely silent on Obama’s foreign policy and military moves.

But in an interview scheduled for broadcast Sunday (focusing largely on the biography he’s written about his father, former President George H. W. Bush), Bush says the only thing he regrets about the 2003 invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein was that it paved the way for the Islamic State.

“A violent group of people have risen up again,” he tells CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “This is Al Qaeda plus. They need to be defeated. And I hope we do…. I hope the strategy works.”

So do most Americans, although polls show a clear-eyed wariness about reengaging militarily in Iraq.

According to a CNN/ORC poll taken in late October, more than 80 percent of those polled believe military action against the Islamic State will be difficult and take a long time. Most approve air strikes but oppose any deployment of US combat troops on the ground there.

Earlier in October, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll asked this: “When it comes to Iraq, do you think the war was worth it or not worth it?" By more than two-to-one (66-26 percent) respondents said the long war was not worth it.

Still, according to this poll, 61 percent agree that “taking military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is in our national interest.”

Some congressional Republicans, whose hand was strengthened in this week’s midterm elections, may push for a stronger US role in Iraq – specifically, in terms of taking the fight to Islamic State militants.

“I remain concerned that the president’s strategy to defeat ISIL [another name for the Islamic State] is insufficient,” Rep. Buck McKeon, (R) of California, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, told the Wall Street Journal. “I would urge the president to reconsider his strategy and clearly explain how additional funding supports a new direction.”

Democrats, too, want a greater role for Congress in any renewed involvement of the US in Iraq.

“The President’s decision to authorize 1,500 more US troops to deploy to Iraq in non-combat roles is another reminder why we need to debate and vote on a new Authorization for Use of Military Force to combat ISIL as soon as possible in the lame duck session,” Senator Tim Kaine, (D) of Virginia, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Friday.

“I’m troubled by suggestions today that Congress should wait until the new Congressional session in 2015 to take this vote,” Sen. Kaine said. “We have already asked too many US servicemembers to risk their lives without a political consensus behind this mission. I urge leaders in the House and Senate to commit to a debate and vote on a new AUMF before the end of the year.”

The administration’s announcement about a US troop increase in Iraq comes with a budget request for $5.6 billion to fund the military and intelligence effort.

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