Imagine the president, speaking on Iraq from the White House Press Briefing Room last Thursday, as the proverbial deer in the headlights—and it’s not difficult to guess just what those headlights were. Think of them as Benghazi on steroids. If the killing of an American ambassador, a Foreign Service officer and two CIA private security contractors could cause almost two years of domestic political uproar, unending Republican criticism and potential damage to the president’s “legacy,” consider what an Iraq in shambles and a terrorist state stretching across “the Levant” might do. It’s hardly surprising, then, that a president regularly described as “reluctant” nonetheless stepped before the press corps and began the slow march back into Iraq and toward disaster.
It was a moment of remarkable contradictions. Obama managed, for example, to warn against “mission creep” even as he was laying out what could only be described as mission creep. Earlier that week, he had notified Congress that 275 troops would be sent to Iraq, largely to defend the vast US embassy in Baghdad, once an almost three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar symbol of imperial hubris, now a white elephant of the first order. A hundred more military personnel were to be moved into the region for backup.
Then on Thursday, the president added 300 “military advisers” drawn from Special Operations forces and evidently meant to staff new “joint operation centers in Baghdad and northern Iraq to share intelligence and coordinate planning to confront the terrorist threat.” (If you are of a certain age, that word “adviser” will ring an eerie Vietnam-ish bell. You should, in fact, already be hearing a giant sucking sound somewhere in the distance.) He also spoke vaguely of positioning “additional US military assets in the region” into which the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, accompanied by a guided-missile cruiser and destroyer, had already sailed. And mind you, this was only the reasonably public part of whatever build-up is underway. While the president spoke of being “prepared to take targeted and precise military action” in Iraq, at least one unnamed “senior administration official” was already at work opening up the possibility of air strikes in Syria. “We don’t restrict potential US action to a specific geographic space,” was the ominous way that official put it.