White House

If Obama Wants to Save Iraq, He’ll Have to Get His Hands Dirty

The president likes things clean and surgical, he likes exit strategies and limited commitments. If Iraq is to be saved, he may have to get over that.

Members of the Al-Abbas brigades, who volunteered to protect the Shiite Muslim holy sites in Karbala against Sunni militants fighting the Baghdad government, parade in the streets of the Shrine city on June 26, 2014. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki conceded that political measures are needed alongside military action to repel a Sunni insurgent offensive that is threatening to tear Iraq apart.
National Journal
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James Oliphant
June 29, 2014, 4:38 p.m.

The deep­en­ing crisis in Ir­aq may be shap­ing up to be Pres­id­ent Obama’s biggest test — and not only be­cause of the risk of the coun­try frac­tur­ing along sec­tari­an lines and the po­ten­tial for the rise of a new ji­hadist ter­ror state.

Few, if any, chal­lenges faced by this White House have cut so force­fully against the pres­id­ent’s own per­son­al and polit­ic­al in­stincts. If Obama is to help bring sta­bil­ity to the re­gion, ex­perts say, then he will have to do the kinds of things he has long res­isted: Get his hands dirty, go it alone, ad­mit his mis­takes, and dig in for the long haul.

This is a pres­id­ent, after all, who has made wind­ing down con­flicts — not es­cal­at­ing them — the hall­mark of his for­eign policy. And in oth­er aren­as — Syr­ia, Ukraine, Ir­an — to name just three, he has shown a pref­er­ence for a de­lib­er­at­ive ap­proach, for soft power and sweet reas­on. Polit­ic­ally, he has liked to op­er­ate with pub­lic opin­ion on his side; in­deed, in everything from health care to im­mig­ra­tion to gay rights, White House aides have of­ten used shift­ing pub­lic at­ti­tudes as jus­ti­fic­a­tion for the pres­id­ent’s ac­tions. And it goes without say­ing that this is a White House that rarely con­cedes its mis­steps.

Ir­aq scrambles all of that. The elect­or­ate is dead set against fur­ther U.S. in­volve­ment. The force­ful march of IS­IS, as well as in­creas­ing Ir­a­ni­an in­flu­ence in the re­gion, cries out for ur­gent ac­tion. Al­lies in the fight will­ing to com­mit re­sources are scarce. And noth­ing about the theat­er sug­gests the kind of sur­gic­al and con­sen­su­al ap­proach that worked for Obama in, say, Libya. Obama is like an NFL coach whose play­book no longer works.

Be­cause of the pres­id­ent’s hands-off style, crit­ics worry that the White House won’t en­gage on the level needed to stave off the de­feat of the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment. “The idea that he’s now pre­pared to ac­know­ledge the col­lapse of one of the found­a­tion­al pil­lars of his for­eign policy, and in­vest his per­son­al prestige and polit­ic­al cap­it­al in the dif­fi­cult, messy, and risky busi­ness of sta­bil­iz­ing Ir­aq’s dys­func­tion­al polit­ics and re­vers­ing the emer­gence of an al-Qaida proto-state in Meso­pot­amia is al­most pre­pos­ter­ous,” said John Han­nah, a seni­or fel­low at the Found­a­tion for the De­fense of Demo­cra­cies. “I hope he proves me wrong.”

Han­nah was a na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser to then-Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney, so his skep­ti­cism comes nat­ur­ally, as it does for House Speak­er John Boehner, who, his aides say, doubts the pres­id­ent’s com­mit­ment on Ir­aq. But even former mem­bers of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion see the White House as just be­gin­ning to real­ize the enorm­ity of the chal­lenge on its hands — and that it’s one that, even after all his years in of­fice, could shape the pres­id­ent’s leg­acy.

“I think the pres­id­ent is fi­nally grasp­ing that this is the prob­lem that he will be judged by,” said Douglas Ol­li­vant, former Ir­aq dir­ect­or on the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil un­der both Obama and George W. Bush.

The war in Afgh­anistan — and the “surge” there that Obama en­dorsed be­fore his de­cision to exit the coun­try — was premised on the idea of deny­ing a safe haven for al-Qaida. Last week, in an­noun­cing he was send­ing 300 U.S. mil­it­ary ad­visers to Ir­aq, Obama de­clared that it was in Amer­ica’s best in­terests to pre­vent a sim­il­ar haven for ter­ror­ists from de­vel­op­ing in the bor­der­lands between Syr­ia and Ir­aq. But Ol­li­vant and oth­ers say that haven already ex­ists — and is a bur­geon­ing threat to the rest of the Middle East, es­pe­cially Jordan and Le­ban­on. “I call it Somalia without a coast­line,” Ol­li­vant said.

If Obama were to leave of­fice with that kind of threat in­tact, all of his ef­forts to battle ter­ror­ism world­wide could pale in com­par­is­on. In­deed, even if the ad­min­is­tra­tion suc­ceeds in its long-shot bid to per­suade Ir­aqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri al-Malaki to form a more in­clus­ive gov­ern­ment, an im­me­di­ate ques­tion that will face Obama will be wheth­er to help that new re­gime push IS­IS back out of Ir­aq, something that ex­perts say Ir­aqi se­cur­ity forces can­not do on its own and something on which it may look to Ir­an for help in­stead.

Re­tired Gen. Dav­id Pet­r­eaus, the former al­lied com­mand­er in Ir­aq, and oth­ers have warned about the risks of the U.S. ap­pear­ing to take sides in a Sunni-Shia con­flict — which means that it may be­come crit­ic­al for Sunni mod­er­ates to be per­suaded to side with the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment, and not the ji­hadist in­sur­gency, in a bid to at least de­fuse the threat if not dir­ectly com­bat it. Here, too, the United States can play a role that Obama may find un­com­fort­able, ana­lysts say.

“There’s dirty, on-the-ground work to be done,” said Kim­berly Kagan, pres­id­ent of the In­sti­tute for the Study of War, which has been track­ing the move­ments of IS­IS across Ir­aq. “This is a clas­sic mis­sion for spe­cial op­er­at­ors or oth­er ele­ments of the U.S. gov­ern­ment” — by which she meant in­tel­li­gence agents.

“This is the hard stuff. This is totally dirty stuff. You have to be out there with the tribes,” Kagan said, adding that those Amer­ic­an forces would have to be pro­tec­ted by a lar­ger unit than Obama has com­mit­ted. “You have to have free­dom of move­ment, which re­quires a heav­ier foot­print. I don’t see a lot of will­ing­ness to do that.”

Bey­ond halt­ing the ad­vance of IS­IS to­ward Bagh­dad, Han­nah and Ol­li­vant say Obama will need to be pre­pared to util­ize U.S. air­power, in­clud­ing drones, to mount at­tacks with­in the ter­rit­ory con­trolled by IS­IS both in Ir­an and Syr­ia to knock out train­ing camps and com­mand cen­ters, pro­voc­at­ive ac­tions that Obama has so far res­isted even as the ter­ror­ism group has swelled in man­power and re­sources. Han­nah, in ad­di­tion, says Obama may have to re­con­sider its dip­lo­mat­ic po­s­i­tion to­ward Ir­aqi Kur­ds in or­der to se­cure their sup­port — an­oth­er is­sue on which the White House has sent con­flict­ing sig­nals.

There are, however, in­dic­a­tions that the ad­min­is­tra­tion is toss­ing its play­book, re­think­ing its ap­proach, and be­gin­ning to see the prob­lems in Ir­aq and Syr­ia as linked. Obama on Thursday called on Con­gress to ap­prove $500 mil­lion to train mod­er­ate rebels in Syr­ia. “What they really ought to be do­ing is look­ing at this prob­lem in a broad­er di­men­sion in Ir­aq and Syr­ia,” said Fre­der­ic Hof, who was Obama’s spe­cial ad­viser on Syr­ia and is now with the At­lantic Coun­cil. “Fend­ing off at­tacks [in Ir­aq] is not enough.”

Hof, too, men­tioned the kind of dirty work that needs to be done by Obama in Syr­ia — to try to “very, very care­fully” fo­cus on the thou­sands of de­fect­ors and desert­ers from the Syr­i­an army to put to­geth­er a na­tion­al res­ist­ance force to battle IS­IS and move to­ward re­gime change in that coun­try. IS­IS could then con­ceiv­ably be pinned down between Dam­as­cus and Bagh­dad.

But, he cau­tioned, “this is not something that’s go­ing to be ac­com­plished in the next 20 minutes.”

And that’s what lies at the heart of the chal­lenge fa­cing the pres­id­ent. It’s not go­ing to be quick. It’s go­ing to be dirty. The pub­lic doesn’t want him to be the one to go in and clean up the mess. There’s every polit­ic­al reas­on to sit tight and let events play out without him. It’s pos­sible that Obama has nev­er been in a tough­er spot — and what he does in the next few weeks and months will say much about his pres­id­ency.


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