Iraq Insurgency Turns Up Heat in White House War Room

Military options being mulled as critics assail Obama for failing to see the crisis coming.

Iraqi policemen man a checkpoint in the capital Baghdad on June 12, 2014, as jihadists and anti-government fighters have spearheaded a major offensive that overrun all of Nineveh province. Jihadists are pushing toward Baghdad after capturing a town only 90 kilometres (56 miles) to its north, in a lightning three-day offensive the Iraqi government has failed to stop. AFP PHOTO / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr. and James Oliphant
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George E. Condon Jr. and James Oliphant
June 12, 2014, 4:22 p.m.

Pres­sure on the White House to in­ter­vene in the crisis in Ir­aq in­tens­i­fied Thursday as Pres­id­ent Obama’s na­tion­al se­cur­ity team was con­sid­er­ing mil­it­ary op­tions to counter the sur­ging threat posed by an army of Sunni ex­trem­ists march­ing to­ward Bagh­dad.

Former mem­bers of both the Obama and Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions warned that un­less the United States ac­ted quickly and ag­gress­ively, the gains of an eight-year con­flict in the re­gion could be wiped away in an eyeblink. “This has gone bey­ond coun­terter­ror­ism. This is a full-blown mil­it­ary as­sault. We bet­ter be think­ing in terms of a much more hol­ist­ic ef­fort to stem the tide, or we’re go­ing to find the tide swamp­ing us,” said Peter Mansoor, the former top of­ficer to Gen. Dav­id Pet­raeus when he served as the su­preme com­mand­er of Al­lied forces in Ir­aq.

The met­eor­ic ad­vance of forces of the Is­lam­ic State of Ir­aq and Syr­ia (IS­IS) in cap­tur­ing first the key north­ern city of Mo­sul and then Tikrit, which sits a little more than 100 miles from the Ir­aqi cap­it­al, has pushed the crisis to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s front burn­er. (Re­ports Thursday had Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment forces push­ing back in Tikrit while Kur­d­ish forces seized the oil-pro­du­cing city of Kirkuk.)

“I don’t rule out any­thing be­cause we do have a stake in mak­ing sure these ji­hadists are not get­ting a per­man­ent foothold in either Ir­aq — or Syr­ia for that mat­ter,” Obama said from the Oval Of­fice on Thursday.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion, however, cat­egor­ic­ally ruled out send­ing ground forces in­to the con­flict. In­stead, the pres­id­ent said, there are some “short-term im­me­di­ate things that will be done mil­it­ar­ily — and our na­tion­al se­cur­ity team is look­ing at all the op­tions,” which, he said, in­clude send­ing equip­ment, provid­ing fin­an­cial aid, or shar­ing in­tel­li­gence.

But a former Obama ad­viser to Ir­aq ar­gued that those “are for the next crisis, not this one” — and that the White House is more likely con­sid­er­ing more dir­ect ac­tion.

“You have to think [air strikes] are back on the table again,” said Douglas Ol­li­vant, the former dir­ect­or on Ir­aq for the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil dur­ing both the Obama and George W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tions.

The New York Times re­por­ted Thursday that the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment had re­ques­ted Amer­ic­an air sup­port to stall the IS­IS ad­vance, but so far those pleas had been denied by the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Ol­li­vant said that stance was likely chan­ging. “It’s prob­ably in our in­terests to in­ter­vene,” he said. “We don’t have an in­terest in a ji­hadist state be­ing carved out or Ir­aq and Syr­ia.”

Nor can the White House wait, Ol­li­vant said, for as­sur­ances from Ir­aqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Malaki that he will form a more in­clus­ive gov­ern­ment that in­cludes Sunni in­terests. “We’re bey­ond this,” he said. “This is much more about an in­vad­ing army from Syr­ia.”

Mansoor, a re­tired Army col­on­el who aided Pet­r­eaus dur­ing the “surge” of 2007-08, also said Obama needed to act swiftly. “The White House has to en­gage. They can wish away this war all they want,” he said. “But this is a crisis and it is one that af­fects U.S. na­tion­al in­terests in the Middle East and our in­terests world­wide in terms of the sta­bil­ity of the world eco­nomy.”

At a press brief­ing just a day earli­er, the White House had again de­clared the war in Ir­aq “ended” as far as the United States was con­cerned, and crit­ics have long con­ten­ded that Obama’s de­sire to define the con­flict as a polit­ic­al suc­cess had blinded him to the mount­ing in­sur­gency.

House Speak­er John Boehner ac­cused Obama Thursday of “tak­ing a nap” as IS­IS mush­roomed in­to a danger to the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment. Re­gard­less, it marks just the latest chal­lenge for a pres­id­ent who only weeks ago in a ma­jor for­eign policy ad­dress seemed to be step­ping away from in­ter­ven­tion­ism. And, it was only little over a year ago that Obama said he was con­sid­er­ing “all op­tions” in the Syr­i­an civil war — the con­flict that gave IS­IS a foothold in the re­gion — but the mo­ment passed without sig­ni­fic­ant Amer­ic­an ac­tion.

The fresh threat to Bagh­dad had the ad­min­is­tra­tion de­fend­ing its de­cision to pull all forces out of Ir­aq three years ago after a se­cur­ity agree­ment with the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment couldn’t be reached. “The with­draw­al in Ir­aq in 2011 was not a mis­take,” State De­part­ment spokes­wo­man Jen Psaki told re­port­ers Thursday.

P.J. Crow­ley, a former State De­part­ment of­fi­cial, con­ten­ded that once U.S. forces left this be­came “Ir­aq’s battle, not ours.”

“That is a de­cision ul­ti­mately Ir­aq made, not the United States,” Crow­ley said. “Would we bet­ter off if there were 10,000 Amer­ic­an troops in Ir­aq today? Yes. However, we were not go­ing to put them there without Ir­aq be­ing in­ves­ted in their pres­ence.”

Still, some Demo­crats were wor­ried Thursday about the dam­age an un­stable Ir­aq — on top of the carnage in Syr­ia and the Rus­si­an in­va­sion of Ukraine — could do to Obama’s in­creas­ingly em­battled pres­id­ency. One prom­in­ent Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant warned that even if Ir­aq was viewed as Bush’s war, this pres­id­ent will be hammered without some man­ner of ro­bust U.S. mil­it­ary ac­tion.

“We have to do more than we want to, be­cause there’s no choice,” the con­sult­ant said. “If Bagh­dad falls, the fail­ure will be ours polit­ic­ally.”

Tom DeFrank contributed to this article.
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