Obama’s Iraq Plan

In a press conference yesterday, Obama announced a limited American response to the Iraq crisis, including the deployment of additional intelligence assets and a team of up to 300 military advisers to help train the country’s security forces:

The troops, drawn from US special operations forces, will assist the Iraqi military to develop and execute a counter-offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis). Their mission is likely to spread to the selection of targets for any future air strikes, but Obama stopped short of accepting a plea from Baghdad to order US air power into the skies over Iraq immediately. Instead, Obama said the option of air strikes would be held in reserve. Any such strikes would be “targeted” and “precise”, Obama said, warning that the fate of the country “hangs in the balance”. …

Obama said the US had “significantly increased” its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance in areas of Iraq taken by Isis. However, his decision not to authorise immediate air strikes will disappoint the Iraqi government, which has formally requested that the US provide Iraq with the air power it lacks. The Obama administration has said military involvement by US forces would not involve combat troops, and would be contingent on the Iraqi government making a concerted effort to bridge the sectarian divides threatening the breakup of the country.

Anthony Cordesman praises the plan as prudent:

It gives the United States the kind of direct contact with Iraqi forces that allows them to judge their strengths and weaknesses, and act as a check on sectarian abuses, as well as help funnel U.S. aid to the units that will use it against ISIL and other extremist forces, rather than encourage sectarian attacks and Civil war. It keeps up the right kind of pressure on Maliki and any successor, and still helps Iraq deal with an all too real threat of extremism. With the right kind of quiet dialogue, it will also assure Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE that the United States is not giving Maliki a blank check.

Saletan’s take:

What emerges from Obama’s remarks is a portrait of cold-blood realism. He thinks our invasion was reckless. He thinks we gave too many lives and spent too much money. He sees ISIS as a threat to regional stability, our oil supply, and our security from terrorism. He’s willing to use force, but only to the extent necessary to quash that threat. Beyond that, he’ll leave the restoration of Iraq to Iraqis. And if that means replacing Maliki, Obama won’t shed any tears.

He also saw Obama’s speech as a strong rebuke to the neocons:

Obama isn’t going to tolerate [the narrative that he has squandered Bush’s victory]. His view is that the neocons wrecked Iraq and that the latest crisis is just another mess he has to clean up. And he’s increasingly willing to say so, now that polls show strong public opposition to the war.

The trick is to do this without saying Americans died in vain. During the Q&A, Obama said one of his goals is “vindicating the enormous effort and sacrifice that was made by our troops in giving [Iraq] an opportunity to build a stable, inclusive society.” So he accepts some responsibility to protect the war’s gains. But he barely concealed his contempt for the decision to invade. He even implied that Iran ought to learn from our mistake: If the Iranians go into Iraq, he suggested, “they could find themselves fighting in a whole lot of places, and that’s probably not good for the Iranian economy or the Iranian people over the longer term, either.”

But Max Boot worries that Obama is treating the sovereign government of Iraq too much like, well, a sovereign government:

Sending in 300 military personnel to work with the Iraqi Security Forces will enhance American awareness of Iraqi military operations and could potentially help honest officers to resist sectarian orders from Nouri al-Maliki’s henchmen. But there is a danger in embedding U.S. forces only with the Iraqi military when it has become so heavily politicized by Shiite operatives. It is vital that the U.S. not be seen as taking a side in this sectarian conflict and that we not become an enabler of Maliki’s sectarian agenda.

For this reason it is imperative that U.S. personnel work closely not only with the Iraqi military but also with the Kurdish peshmerga and whatever anti-ISIS forces can be cobbled together among the Sunnis–call it the Son of the Sons of Iraq (as the Anbar Awakening militia was known). Moreover, it is imperative that the U.S. not forget about the “S”–Syria”–in ISIS. We need to hit ISIS on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, which will require doing much more to train and equip the Free Syrian Army and possibly support their operations with air power.

Juan Cole believes that airstrikes, which he expects will be carried out by drones, are a mistake if their end purpose is to prop up Maliki:

To the extent that Obama is likely paving the way to US drone strikes on ISIS in Iraq, he is mysteriously failing to take his own advice. He has already admitted that the Iraq crisis is political and not military, and said that there are no military solutions. The Sunni Iraqis of Mosul, Tikrit and other towns of the west and north of the country have risen up and thrown off the government and the army of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The uprising was coordinated with ISIS, but was made up of many groups and to some extent was the spontaneous act of townspeople. Droning some ISIS commanders to death isn’t going to change the situation in Mosul, a city of 2 million that is done out with the Maliki government.

For Obama to associate himself with an attempt to crush this uprising in favor the the highly sectarian ruling Da’wa Party (Shiite ‘Call’ or ‘Mission’), which is allied with Iran is most unwise. If it had to be done, it should have been done as a covert operation and never spoken of publicly.

Daniel Byman also hopes we don’t go ahead with airstrikes:

If the Iraqi Army withers and runs when attacked, limited airstrikes will ultimately do little to push ISIS back. Air power can’t conquer territory by itself. Even in the best circumstances, airstrikes must be sustained to have a strategic effect. And strikes must work in tandem with advances on the ground, so Iraqi forces can move in and occupy any territory from which ISIS withdraws. If strikes are limited in duration, ISIS can simply lie low, camouflaging its forces among the civilian population and avoiding the offensive until the spotlight moves off Iraq, as it inevitably will. If its forces are hit in one area, it can simply reoccupy the territory when the bombing ends. The United States must be prepared to strike often and repeatedly if it is going to play a major role in pushing ISIS back. This could take months even if all goes well.

Davidson thinks that focusing on military tactics is misguided:

[T]he idea that local forces who engaged in intractable battles just need to learn how to fight properly can be a trap. Mass desertion, of the sort that led to the fall of Mosul, is a political question, not a matter of learning how to drill. Training can sometimes mean telling the Army you’re working with not to engage in abuses; the proper verb, then, might be restraining, which some have argued is America’s proper job when it comes to Iraq, and why we ought to have left a residual force there. Under this theory, we should give the Shiite-dominated Maliki government guns, and then stand by them, because if we don’t they will point the guns at the wrong people—at members of the Sunni community. How does a mission like that end?

Judis feels for Obama, noting the thorny position he’s in and that he doesn’t really have any good options:

He is suffering from political cross pressures. On the one hand, there is next to zero public support for any military intervention in Iraq or anywhere else. In an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 47 percent thought the United States should become “less active” in world affairs; only 19 percent thought it should become “more active.” At the same time, when the press reports chaos overseas, and when the President’s opponents in Washington accuse him of being weak for not ending the chaos, public support for the president plummets. In this month’s NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, only 37 percent of the public approved and 57 percent disapproved of the President’s handling of foreign policy. That’s an all time low for Obama.

Charges of weakness from McCain or The Weekly Standard are often reinforced by hyped reporting meant to keep viewers from switching channels. Waiting for Obama to speak today, I heard Christiane Amanpour saying on CNN that ISIL represented a “dire and existential threat” to the United States. Then CNN’s Jake Tapper described ISIL as “approaching closer to Baghdad.” I don’t think either of these statements were true, but I think the reporters were merely trying to create drama around the President’s speech. They weren’t trying to pressure him for action, but statements like these have exactly that effect and probably led to the president advancing measures today that make it look like he is doing something to hold Iraq together, but that are unlikely, on their own, to succeed.

Amanpour has also described ISIS as a branch of al Qaeda. There seem to be few hyperboles she will not advance to promote the cause of American military intervention in the Middle East. Previous Dish on the possibility of US airstrikes here, here, and here. My own take on the CIA’s ambitions is here.