Iraq is reeling—and hemorrhaging—from a highly coordinated series of thrusts across the country by what is, in effect, a jihadist army. In quick succession, al-Qaeda-inspired terrorists operating under the banner of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) have taken a number of towns and cities—Fallujah, Mosul and Tikrit apparently among them—with Baghdad in their crosshairs. What, if anything, should the United States do to assist Iraq’s beleaguered government?
Before answering that question, it’s important to take stock of how we got here.
President Barack Obama was opposed to the Iraq war before, during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The centerpiece of his campaign’s foreign policy—indeed the very fuel for his White House run—was always his opposition to the war in Iraq. If nothing else, he deserves credit for consistency. But governing is different than campaigning, and consistency is arguably not the most important trait for a commander-in-chief to possess. After all, when it comes to national security, inconsistency is preferable to instability.
President Dwight Eisenhower recognized this truth. As he put it two years before his election, quoting Stonewall Jackson, “Always surprise, mystify and mislead the enemy.”
In 1952, with the nation bogged down in a bloody and unpopular war on the Korean peninsula, Gen. Eisenhower, not unlike Sen. Obama in 2008, campaigned on a promise to “concentrate on the job of ending the Korean War.”
Eisenhower had harsh words for the Truman administration. In fact, he was arguably more scathing in his criticism of President Truman’s handling of Korea than Obama was about President Bush’s handling of Iraq. In the autumn of 1952, for example, the general-turned-candidate called Korea a “tragedy,” “the burial ground for 20,000 American dead” and “a damning measure of the quality of leadership we have been given.” He blamed the outgoing administration for a “record of failure.” Conveying the exasperation of an entire nation, he asked, “Is there an end?” And he warned that “neither glib promises nor glib excuses” would suffice in answering that question.
In short, Ike wanted to end the war; he thought it was poorly prosecuted; and he knew America’s sons were paying the price for Washington’s mistakes. But ending the war was not an end in and of itself for Ike. He had the good sense to realize that ending the war on America’s terms could not be achieved through photo-op talks or artificial timetables. In fact, he was dubious of what he called “the conference method” of foreign policy. “We have had a lot of talks and some of them have produced very disappointing results,” he noted, grimly adding, “The pact of Munich was a more fell blow to humanity than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.”
Ike grasped the broader, strategic importance of Korea and of how America extricated itself from the war. “There is a Korean War,” he said grimly. “And we are fighting it,” reminding the American people that he could not go back in time and undo what had already been done. So he pledged to “review and reexamine every course of action open to us” and to pursue not only peace but “victory.” And that’s what he did. Using every lever of presidential power—military force, quiet diplomacy, the bully pulpit, even brandishing the nuclear option—he brought the war to an end six months after taking the oath of office.
Importantly, U.S. troops would remain in South Korea to bolster a fragile government, stabilize the region and secure America’s interests.
Obama did not follow Eisenhower’s example. As the surge took hold and turned the tide in Iraq in 2008-09—eviscerating al Qaeda, bringing civilian deaths down from a ghastly monthly toll of nearly 4,000 in 2006 to 137 by 2010, persuading former insurgents to become part of the solution, stabilizing Iraq’s politics, and rescuing Iraq from civil war and America from defeat—most observers thought Washington and Baghdad would hammer out a status of forces of agreement (SOFA) to authorize a modest-sized residual U.S. presence in Iraq. As Vice President Joe Biden said, “I’ll bet you my vice presidency Maliki [Iraq’s president] will extend the SOFA.” In fact, American and Iraqi military commanders had counted on a follow-on force of several thousand U.S. troops to help provide security and training. As Frederick Kagan, one of the architects of the surge, explained, “Painstaking staff work in Iraq led Gen. Lloyd Austin to recommend trying to keep more than 20,000 troops in Iraq after the end of 2011.” The troops would not be there to fight, but rather to deter flare-ups, train Iraq’s nascent army, secure key facilities and serve as a just-in-case backstop.
But Obama showed little interest in securing a SOFA and offered a residual force of just 3,000 troops. When Baghdad balked, as Kagan reported at the time, “The White House then dropped the matter entirely and decided instead to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year , despite the fact that no military commander supported the notion that such a course of action could secure U.S. interests.” That’s worth repeating: “no military commander supported” a complete withdrawal.
But that’s what the president wanted. That’s what he had promised. And that’s what he ordered.
In other words, just as it was a gamble for Bush to launch the war and then the surge, it was a gamble for Obama to withdraw all American troops from Iraq. With ISIS tearing through north-central Iraq, Iraq’s military falling back and falling apart, and an estimated 14,000 Iraqis killed since the withdrawal of U.S. forces, it is now safe to say the gamble did not pay off.
It didn’t have to be this way. And it doesn’t have to stay this way.
To pull Iraq—yet again—back from the brink, the president should heed his own counsel and follow his own example.
In 2008, then-Candidate Obama unveiled a plan premised on “a counter-terrorism force to strike al Qaeda if it forms a base that the Iraqis cannot destroy.” He explained that “If al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.” And in remarks about Pakistan, he argued, rightly, “We cannot tolerate a sanctuary for terrorists who threaten America’s homeland.”
Well, al Qaeda’s offshoots are forming more than just a base in Iraq, more than just a sanctuary; they are building a state within a state (or more accurately, a state spanning two states). The Iraqis clearly cannot excise this cancer on their own. And since there can be no doubt that a jihadist statelet inside Iraq threatens U.S. interests, it’s time for the president to deploy his “counter-terrorism force”—there are many such tools in the Pentagon’s toolbox—against the metastasizing jihadist army in Iraq.
Baghdad has been asking Washington to send advisors and to hit ISIS camps with drone strikes since 2013, to no avail. According to the New York Times, the Iraqi government is even “prepared to allow the United States to carry out strikes using warplanes.”
Indeed, much can be done without ground forces, as the president has proven repeatedly with his weapon of choice: armed drones. As the New America Foundation details, the U.S. has conducted at least 324 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2009, killing as many as 2,800 militants. Similarly, the U.S. has conducted 108 drone strikes in Yemen since 2009, killing as many as 887 militants, including several al Qaeda leaders. And it’s not just unmanned aircraft: According to the Washington Post, a Djibouti-based squadron of U.S. F-15E Strike Eagles has conducted operations in Yemen. (A crucial difference between Iraq and the Pakistan-Yemen case is that the Iraqis openly want U.S. drones to target jihadists within their borders, while the Yemenis and Pakistanis are less supportive.)
In other words, saying “no” or “maybe later” to Baghdad clearly isn’t a function of an allergy to using military force against jihadist groups. One suspects that it has more to do with the promises of 2008.
“We have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria,” Obama says, even as Iraq crumbles before our eyes. “My team is working around the clock to identify how we can provide the most effective assistance.”
The Iraqi government has been told U.S. airstrikes are “imminent.” But the president’s mention of Syria does little to inspire. Indeed, in light of the “non-lethal aid” for Syria’s rebels and the MREs for Ukraine, Baghdad shouldn’t expect much. After all, this is the same White House that labeled Libya a “time limited” war, put an 18-month expiration date on what it called “our vital national interests” in Afghanistan and erased its own red lines in Syria.
The defense that the president—by keeping his campaign pledge and consigning Iraq to “old business”—is merely reflecting the world-weariness of an inward-looking electorate may be accurate, but that doesn’t make it right. Leadership, especially in the realm of foreign policy and national defense, is more often than not about setting a direction and a destination—and then convincing and cajoling the American people to follow. Think about Lincoln transforming the Civil War from a struggle to preserve the Union into a struggle to abolish slavery; FDR leading the American people out of isolationism; Truman making the case for global containment; Eisenhower making it clear to the hawks that there would be no rollback of communism in Korea or Hungary; Reagan reviving the nation’s flagging commitment to the Cold War; the elder Bush building support for Desert Storm; Clinton explaining the controversial Kosovo war; the younger Bush defending the far-more-controversial surge.
Soon, President Obama will need to employ his formidable rhetorical skills either to make the case for a renewed U.S. commitment to Iraq—or to explain the disintegration of Iraq.
Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute Center for America’s Purpose.