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.
On the diplomatic front, Obama made it pretty clear that he’s calling for regime change in Iraq—“a new government should convene as soon as possible”—and that Kerry’s mission is designed to foster that:
The United States will lead a diplomatic effort to work with Iraqi leaders and the countries in the region to support stability in Iraq. At my direction, Secretary Kerry will depart this weekend for meetings in the Middle East and Europe, where he’ll be able to consult with our allies and partners. And just as all Iraq’s neighbors must respect Iraq’s territorial integrity, all of Iraq’s neighbors have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists.
Above all, Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future. Shia, Sunni, Kurds—all Iraqis—must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence. National unity meetings have to go forward to build consensus across Iraq’s different communities. Now that the results of Iraq’s recent election has been certified, a new parliament should convene as soon as possible. The formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis.
And Obama signaled to Iran that Tehran can help stabilize Iraq:
Our view is that Iran can play a constructive role if it is helping to send the same message to the Iraqi government that we’re sending, which is that Iraq only holds together if it’s inclusive and that if the interests of Sunni, Shia and Kurd are all respected. If Iran is coming in solely as an armed force on behalf of the Shia, and if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation and the prospect for government formation that would actually be constructive over the long term.
Indeed, since the beginning of the ISIS offensive Iran has said repeatedly that Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds need to work together against ISIS. On the other hand, Iran will exercise its veto power over the next prime minister of Iraq, which means that someone like Ayad Allawi—the secular Shiite who has lots of Sunni support—won’t be named. And just as the United States is getting involved militarily in Iraq, Iran is already deeply engaged with Iraq’s armed forces and Shiite militia, and General Qassem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force has been visiting Baghdad to explore how Iran might get even more involved.
The action by Obama is something ordered up by neoconservatives, however, but by pro-military, liberal interventionists inside the administration. Outside the administration, they’re allied with people such as Anne-Marie Slaughter, the former director of policy planning under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and with think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and the Center for a New American Security, both Democratic-leaning. (It’s especially ironic to see the Center of American Progress and its chief national security analyst, Brian Katulis, supporting airstrikes in Iraq, having led the charge in 2008 for the United States to withdraw unilaterally from Iraq.)
At yesterday’s news conference, Jim Acosta, evidently a dim bulb, stupidly asked Obama if he had any “regrets” about his “decision” to leave Iraq in 2011, picking up on a nonsensical trope from neocons and Dick Cheney who accuse Obama of abandoning Iraq when the last US forces pulled out back then. Did Acosta not know that the decision to pull the troops out in 2011 was made by President George W. Bush in 2008, and that in fact Obama—disappointing his antiwar base—tried to extend that deadline, but that Iraq said no? Anyway, Obama set him straight. Here’s the full exchange:
Q Just very quickly, do you wish you had left a residual force in Iraq? Any regrets about that decision in 2011?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, keep in mind that wasn’t a decision made by me; that was a decision made by the Iraqi government. We offered a modest residual force to help continue to train and advise Iraqi security forces. We had a core requirement which we require in any situation where we have US troops overseas, and that is, is that they’re provided immunity since they’re being invited by the sovereign government there, so that if, for example, they end up acting in self-defense if they are attacked and find themselves in a tough situation, that they’re not somehow hauled before a foreign court. That’s a core requirement that we have for US troop presence anywhere.
The Iraqi government and Prime Minister Maliki declined to provide us that immunity. And so I think it is important though to recognize that, despite that decision, that we have continued to provide them with very intensive advice and support and have continued throughout this process over the last five years to not only offer them our assistance militarily, but we’ve also continued to urge the kinds of political compromises that we think are ultimately necessary in order for them to have a functioning, multi-sectarian democracy inside the country.