Obama’s Iraq dilemma: Whether to rejoin a war he said was 'dumb'

As the situation in Iraq worsens, President Obama is forced to consider reengaging militarily in a region marked by sectarian strife. He never thought the US should be there in the first place.

Thaier Al-Sudani/REUTERS
Volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight against predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), carry weapons during a parade in Baghdad Sunday.

As a young state senator from Illinois in 2002, Barack Obama was harshly critical of what looked like an impending US-led invasion of Iraq.

Speaking to an anti-war rally on the day Congress authorized war in Iraq, Obama called that prospect “dumb” and “rash.”

“What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in [the Bush] administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne,” he said. “What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income – to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression. That's what I'm opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war.”

Twelve years later and into the sixth year of his presidency, Obama is faced with the possibility that the US might have to reengage militarily in Iraq two years after the last American combat troops left that country.

He’s ordered an aircraft carrier and two other warships to patrol the waters off Iraq.

Their targets, should they launch attack aircraft and cruise missiles, would be the Islamist insurgents that have taken over some Iraqi cities. Meanwhile, government soldiers leave weapons and uniforms behind as they flee (dozens of them apparently captured and executed), and Iraqi civilians join other refugees.

Obama says US military might – either direct American engagement or providing even more weaponry to Iraqi forces – is contingent on that country’s leadership making a “serious and sincere effort … to set aside sectarian differences, to provide stability and to account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq’s communities.”

That would be a far jump for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose policies have been sectarian (pro-Shiite) and authoritarian.

“His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq,” writes Marc Lynch in the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, Obama is getting waves of criticism and advice about Iraq.

The basic criticism, coming from Republican lawmakers and other supporters of US military engagement in Iraq, is that the US pulled out its combat troops too soon.

"The Obama administration wanted to say 'I ended the war in Iraq, I'm going to end the war in Afghanistan,'" Sen. Lindsey Graham, (R) of South Carolina, who sits on the Armed Services Committee, said on CNN's “State of the Union” Sunday. "This was as predictable as the sun rising in the East. I blame President Obama mightily for a hands-off policy when it comes to Iraq."

"Iraq and Syria combined are going to be the staging area for the next 9/11 if we don't do anything about it," warned Sen. Graham, who is in favor of airstrikes in support of the Iraqi government. “If Baghdad falls, if the central government falls, a disaster awaits us of monumental proportions."

"This is as dangerous as it gets," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, (R) of Michigan, said on "Fox News Sunday.”

Regarding US warships in the region, Rep. Rogers said, “If we've learned anything, you can't fire missiles and then turn around and come home.”

In an opinion piece on CNN’s website, Aaron David Miller argues differently. Mr. Miller is a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.

“Mr. President,” he writes, “you probably have no other choice but to get sucked back into Iraq with military strikes. It might even have positive short-term results. But it likely won't over time. Triumphalist Shia, unhappy Sunnis, Iranian influence, and Kurdish separatists will guarantee it. Iraq was a trap for America once before. It will be again.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.