President Obama’s statement and answers to questions at a mini–news conference at the White House yesterday—and you can read the whole transcript at the White House’s site—signals a major shift by the United States on Iraq, which Obama has been trying to forget since 2011. And it’s s sign—as I’ve argued repeatedly here and as The Washington Post reported in a separate piece today, noting that the administration “has begun to consider the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as a single challenge”—that the civil war in Syria and the civil war in Iraq have become one. But it’s a crisis that needs a political-diplomatic response, and not a military one. Unfortunately, Obama is doing both, and that’s not good.
On one hand, the president is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Europe, the Middle East and Baghdad in a diplomatic push, and the United States is signaling to all of Iraq’s political factions that it favors getting rid of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and creating a government of national unity there. Because doing so means getting buy-ins from Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, accomplishing that will require some intricate diplomatic maneuvering, and finding a replacement for Maliki—who won’t go easily—will be very, very difficult. (Believe it or not, there’s even talk that Maliki might be replaced by that wily wheeler-dealer Ahmad Chalabi, though he’s likely no one’s first or second choice.)
But, on the other hand, Obama has set into motion actions likely to expand the “Global War on Terror” (GWOT, “rhymes with jihad”) from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and North Africa deep into Iraq, too, with drones and airstrikes. In his announcement that he’s sending an additional 300 US forces to Iraq, the president made it clear that the US military is getting ready to target the bad guys of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from the air. He said that the United States has “significantly increased our intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets so that we’ve got a better picture of what’s taking place inside of Iraq [and] positioned additional US military assets in the region.” And he added ominously, “Because of our increased intelligence resources, we’re developing more information about potential targets associated with [ISIS]. And going forward, we will be prepared to take targeted and precise military action.”
Worse, it seems clear that the United States is also considering a significant expansion of military support to Syria’s “moderate” rebels in the civil war against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and in this context the president cited his just-announced $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnership Fund.” Never mind that, in fact, the United States is thus on both sides of the same war, fighting Sunni rebels in Iraq and supporting them in Syria. (Both Iran and Saudi Arabia exhibit no such schizophrenic behavior, with Iran backing the governments in Baghdad and Damascus and Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni rebels, though not ISIS, in both Syria and Iraq.) The real problem with bombing ISIS is that there’s no way to avoid civilian casualties, which will increase Sunni tribal and Baathist support—already strong—for the ISIS-led offensive. And unless a new government of national unity, inclusive of Sunnis, comes into power tout de suite in Baghdad, the United States will be going to war on Maliki’s behalf, and jointly with Iran, against Iraq’s Sunni minority—or at least that’s how it will be seen by those on both sides of Iraq’s sectarian divide.