Iraq Crisis: Here’s Why Obama Is Being Cautious

The Iraq crisis continues to deepen, prompting urgent calls for American involvement in Washington. But President Obama made clear Friday that while he was ready to assist Baghdad in its fight against the group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, troops were not an option.

As we reported yesterday, Obama drew the line there because of concerns over Iraqi politics, saying that “the United States is not going to simply involve itself in military action in the absence of a political plan.”

Unsurprisingly, the Washington debate has taken on a distinctly partisan tone with Republicans pointing the finger at Obama’s pullout in 2011 and Democrats insisting that the current turmoil can be traced back to George W. Bush’s original decision to invade in 2003.

But those arguments are too simplistic. Much of the problems Iraq faces today have been years in the making and largely due to the inability of American forces, under Bush or Obama, to establish a stable and legitimate political system.

Political scientist Marc Lynch touched on this at the Monkey Cage blog Thursday, pointing to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as the key problem.

“Maliki lost Sunni Iraq through his sectarian and authoritarian policies. His repeated refusal over long years to strike an urgently needed political accord with the Sunni minority, his construction of corrupt, ineffective and sectarian state institutions, and his heavy-handed military repression in those areas are the key factors in the long-developing disintegration of Iraq.”

Lynch thinks that ISIS’ push toward Baghdad might provide the incentive for Maliki to change, but “his first instinct, naturally, has been to try to use the crisis to expand his power by calling an emergency session of parliament to pass a truly objectionable emergency law, which would give the prime minister virtually untrammeled dictatorial powers.”

The US has faced the Maliki problem (and a similar one with Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan) for years, so it’s certainly on the minds of decision-makers at the White House. Any aid, or use of force, has to do more than just prop up a questionable regime.

But it isn’t just the political concerns that cause hesitation in formulating a response to the Iraq crisis.

Zack Beauchamp of Vox, for example, points to the challenges posed by Iraq to Obama’s own foreign policy philosophy:

“Obama’s vision implies two things about American foreign policy. First, when you need to use force against terrorists, do it in a narrow way — targeted strikes, usually from drones, designed to pinpoint terrorist leaders and fighters and coordinated with local governments. Second, overreaction to terrorism can be a devastating own-goal. And the most obvious such overreaction — the Iraq war — must be repudiated without reservation.”

Put simply, no matter how large a threat to US security ISIS might pose, the Iraq crisis offers no good options for Obama, especially in terms of remaining consistent with his vision as Beauchamp describes and with the larger strategic concerns of the region.

Consider, for example, that Iran (as we’ve reported) is already playing a supporting role to Maliki’s regime. Iran is also a Shiite state, and has no desire to see the Sunni ISIS claim any more territory or power than it already has.

This, of course, puts the US in the awkward (to say the least) position of having a clear joint interest with the Iranians. Some, as political scientist Dan Drezner noted, have rightly called this “a grotesque situation,” but as he also says, again rightly, that as it stands, the Iraq crisis has few good options, “which means you have to pick your poison.”

In any event, working alongside Iran, or at least alongside their own interests, surely will draw even harsher political fire for the administration. So that’s another concern.

But what if the US does decide to use airstrikes to take out or slow down ISIS? Well, that offers challenges of its own. From Foreign Policy‘s Gordon Lubold and John Hudson:

The Iraqi security forces don’t have troops capable of relaying detailed targeting information, which would likely require the Pentagon or the CIA to send small numbers of American personnel into Iraq to handle that difficult mission. Without adequate ground intelligence, the United States could run the risk of accidentally killing Iraqi security forces or, even worse, civilians.

While it’s easy, and probably correct, to say the US must “do something,” it’s much less clear what exactly that “something” should be without making the situation worse or creating new problems. That’s why President Obama is playing it safe, and it’s that kind of deliberation that has defined his approach to foreign policy and formed the heart of his recent speech at West Point on his approach to US strategy.

And that’s why, however the US handles the Iraq crisis, it almost certainly won’t involve a massive American intervention.

[photo: Pete Souza/The White House]