by Wayne White
President Barack Obama’s news conference today showed some well-placed White House caution against acting in ways that would support more substantially Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian agenda in Iraq. Hopefully, Obama’s repeated implicit criticism of Maliki’s government and his expressed desire for key Iraqi players to form a new government will raise the chances of Maliki’s ouster. Yet the announced measures do carry risks — potentially for greater US involvement with Malki & Co, and to US personnel in Iraq, the US itself, and US diplomacy aimed at defusing Sunni Arab support for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The White House correctly views Maliki’s remarks yesterday as insufficiently reflective of a genuine desire for inclusiveness. Although Maliki briefly admitted “mistakes” and called upon Sunni Arabs to abandon the extremist ISIS, he offered no meaningful concessions with which to change their minds. Instead he railed against traitorous politicians and Iraqi officers, alleged conspiracies, as well as Saudi Arabia for generating the current crisis. In fact, the key figure in setting the stage for the stunning ISIS breakout in Iraq was Maliki.
Any hands on cooperation with Iraqi units that could collapse or be partnered with vicious Shia militias would expose US troops to possible violence and more direct association with inevitable retaliatory Shia atrocities against Sunni Arabs. However, the president’s proposal involves the very real possibility of so-called “mission creep” toward even closer military involvement at the unit level.
The deployment of up to 300 more US military advisors to Iraq with their mission unclear — but apparently not merely aimed at better securing our embassy — carries risks. According to the AP, US officials say they will be embedded in teams with Iraqi forces. Thus, there may be the distinct possibility that they will be tactically very close to the action, perhaps contradicting Obama’s claim that US troops will not be involved in combat roles. Likewise, placing military personnel in joint operations centers in Baghdad and the Kurdish north brings in the danger of the US becoming more associated with Maliki’s military effort and the atrocities that will surely result.
Both actions, part of a US effort to “increase support for Iraqi security forces,” also conflict with Obama’s statement that the US would not support “one side against another” amidst Iraq’s seething ethno-sectarian divide. Ideally, both measures should have been withheld until the behavior of political leaders in Baghdad became more consistent with Washington’s vision.
Moreover, such actions (as well as the statement about supporting government security forces) not only makes ISIS more likely to target the US or Americans, but also could undermine Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic mission, presumably aimed at restoring a more “stable, inclusive society” in Iraq. Indeed, countries able to communicate with Iraq’s Sunni Arab tribes and former military officers (many of the latter supporting ISIS one way or another because of anger toward Maliki) will be unhappy with Obama’s military package.
Another problem is Iran. Regardless of US advisors, Tehran will have a lot more clout with the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. Iranian military advisors are already on the scene. It is unlikely those advisors — or the Iranian leadership — will be nearly as concerned as their US counterparts with avoiding sectarianism and atrocities (and association with both). Obama himself underscored Iran’s differences with the US concerning Washington’s hope for a less inflamed sectarian environment in the region, suggesting Iran would not shift such positions when he said “Old habits die hard.”
The most refreshing aspects of Obama’s remarks today were his repeated statements implicitly calling for Maliki’s removal. His assertion that “we don’t have” an inclusive government that Sunni Arabs can trust to serve their interests and noting of doubts among other Iraqi leaders are revealing in that respect. Obama’s call for Iraq’s parliament to form a unity government at a time when the makeup of Iraq’s post-election political lineup is still pending, as well as deeming the need for change a “test” for Iraq’s leadership, also says everything short of: “Maliki needs to go.”
NBC’s leading Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reported before Obama’s remarks that NBC had received word of ongoing consultations regarding the government in Najaf (where influential Shia Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani resides). Obama also mentioned questions among some Iraqi leaders in Baghdad, suggesting the US has information of possible maneuvering against Maliki. It could be that Obama’s decision to withhold airstrikes and even more lower-level US military guidance might embolden Iraqi leaders yearning for greater American involvement to attempt dumping Maliki.
All told, Obama’s decision is a mixed bag, but remains relatively cautious. Hewing to such a stance in the face of intense pressure from critics on Capitol Hill and those hyping the immediate ISIS threat to the US (the latter noted in my June 14 analysis) was difficult. Let us hope that in the coming days and weeks President Obama has the will to resist pressures that could significantly increase the US military role in Iraq (and likewise the risk to US interests and American personnel inside Iraq).