September 21, 2014
President Obama doesn’t have much of a plan, but neither does anybody else. Proceed with caution.
Obama’s initial response to the rise and deadly spread of an extremist militant group in Iraq and Syria is full of holes.
It is doubtful that American airstrikes will be enough to sufficiently turn back the Islamist insurgents.
It is doubtful that airstrikes alone will be enough to secure an escape path for all 20,000 Yazidis, a religious minority group still under siege on a barren mountaintop.
It is even questionable whether the one major condition Obama has placed on further U.S. military support — reform of the Iraqi government to make it more inclusive than the Shiite-dominated administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — will be achieved anytime soon and find support among the Iraqi people.
On Monday afternoon, Obama congratulated Iraq’s incoming political leadership, saying they have “a difficult task” ahead in forming a “new and inclusive” government. It does not help that Maliki has refused to step down.
Obama was caught flat-footed this summer by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Now he’s making up our nation’s response as he goes along. But the fundamental conviction guiding his decisions, that the United States cannot solve Iraq’s problems — and we dare not let Iraqis think otherwise — is sound.
Obama’s critics, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., want to see a full-blown military effort to destroy ISIS’s military capabilities, beginning with a massive bombing campaign. Maybe to be followed by ground troops. But then what?
As our nation has learned, the more the United States takes the lead in Iraq, the more the Iraqis sit back. Political reform in Baghdad must come first, building wide support among the Iraqi people, particularly Sunnis, for Iraq’s central government. Only then might the tide turn decisively against ISIS.
“The fundamental problem is whether the Iraqis believe that they have a representative government so that Sunnis feel comfortable with the government in Baghdad,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, said Sunday on “Fox News Sunday.” “That’s going to be the key to cutting off the type of permanent support ISIS could otherwise have.”
The Obama administration’s limited approach, in which airstrikes are supporting Kurdish fighters, is showing early results. On Sunday, American-armed Kurdish forces retook two villages near the Kurdish capital of Irbil from the Islamic militants, a rare victory for an army that had been in retreat. The Kurds also managed to safely move about 20,000 Yazidis off Mount Sinjar.
The fear of many war-weary Americans is mission creep — that airstrikes in Iraq will lead inexorably to boots on the ground. Obama has all but ruled that out, but he really can’t. ISIS is no trumped-up threat, like Saddam Hussein after 9/11. ISIS, if left unchecked, could be the source of the next 9/11.
The so-called Powell Doctrine, a checklist of when to wage war credited to Gen. Colin Powell, says the United States should stay out of this one. There is no “clear attainable objective” and no “plausible exit strategy” to avoid “endless entanglement.” And the “consequences of our actions” have not been “fully considered.” But one Powell Doctrine criterion does hold up: a “vital national security interest is threatened.”
The important question has never been whether to take on ISIS, but how. The United States needs partners. Go it alone now and we go it alone forever.