President Obama has returned to Iraq with the same slogan that paved the way for his departure: “There is no military solution.” It was misleading then, and it’s misleading now. There is no clear division between military and non-military solutions, especially when the enemy is a genocidal terrorist organization like ISIL. Unless the White House can come to terms with this reality, there is no reason to expect that today’s airstrikes will become part of an overall strategy that addresses ISIL’s threat to both Americans and Iraqis.
Yesterday evening, the president offered a slight variation on his familiar line about the absence of military solutions. He said, “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.” In part, this is a political message. The president wants the American public to know that he isn’t relaunching the intervention he promised so many times to end. While the U.S. is now employing air power as well as advisers on the ground, Obama doesn’t want anyone to infer that he made a historic mistake when he pulled out every last one of our troops in 2011.
Privately, Obama likely regrets his withdrawal of all American forces from Iraq. It’s harder to say whether he understands why it was such a bad idea, even before the ISIL threat materialized. One of the crucial lessons of the surge in 2007–08 was that there was no non-military, non-American solution to the “larger crisis” in Iraq.
As a candidate for president, Senator Obama was against the surge before he was for it. “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there,” he told MSNBC in January 2007. “In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” While few politicians or generals had much confidence the surge would make a difference, Obama bought into the liberal notion that American troops themselves were a cause of instability.
By early 2008, that position was distinctly embarrassing, so Obama told Tom Brokaw that he’d always believed “additional U.S. troops could temporarily quell the violence.” The word ‘temporarily’ is an extremely important one. Even after the success of the surge was obvious, Obama explained to Brokaw that a lasting solution depended on Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds changing their politics. What he did not recognize was that the presence of American forces and their reputation for impartiality made it possible for Iraqis to change their politics.
This is why the advocates of the surge protested so forcefully when Obama started laying the groundwork for a complete withdrawal. To this day, Obama pretends the pull-out wasn’t his call. “Keep in mind that wasn’t a decision made by me; that was a decision made by the Iraqi government,” he said in June, after ISIL conquered Mosul. But that was never true, except in the most narrow technical sense.
As Max Boot explained way back in 2011, the White House didn’t even bother starting negotiations with the Iraqis until just a few months before a new deal was required. American commanders wanted 20,000 troops to stay behind and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, knowing where the president stood, said 10,000 was the bare minimum. “When the White House then said it would consent to no more than 5,000 troops — a number that may not even have been able to adequately defend itself, much less carry out other missions — the Iraqis understandably figured that the U.S. wasn’t serious about a continued commitment.” So, technically, the Iraqis said no, but it was Obama who sabotaged the negotiations.
The results were predictable, although perhaps not to a president who spoke as if there were a bright red line that separated military from non-military solutions. (Obama has never been good with red lines.) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki worked relentlessly to re-politicize the armed forces that Americans had worked so hard to de-politicize. In addition to ousting Sunni leaders from the military and denying jobs to Sunni militiamen who played an essential role in chasing out al-Qaeda, Maliki began to persecute Sunni politicians. Democracy was no longer emerging, but rather disintegrating.
After the fall of Mosul, President Obama lectured that “Iraqi leaders must rise above their differences and come together around a political plan for Iraq’s future. Shia, Sunni, Kurds — all Iraqis — must have confidence that they can advance their interests and aspirations through the political process rather than through violence.” He saw fit to add, “There’s no military solution inside of Iraq, certainly not one that is led by the United States.”
Of course, there had been a military solution led by the United States, but Obama had pulled the plug. The presence of American forces, respected by Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, exerted a powerful influence on behalf of moderation. There was a cost to this presence; about five American troops were killed each month in 2010 and 2011, a tenth of the number dying in Afghanistan.
The lesson for the president is that the ability to employ force generates political leverage. This is a lesson that seems to elude the White House, regardless of whether the subject is Syria, Iran, Ukraine, or Iraq. Obama is right that a more inclusive government in Baghdad is necessary to turn around the war against ISIL. But his lectures won’t change Iraqi minds. America needs leverage.
For now, the first thing is to be grateful that Obama has taken action to prevent the wholesale slaughter of the Yazidis. Initial reports suggest that the intervention is already saving lives. But what is the value of saving the Yazidis if the United States intends to let Iraqis be slowly killed by the hundreds, until the body count resembles that of Syria?
Ideally, the president will make a commitment to defeating ISIL, not just dabbling in crisis resolution. His attorney general has already stated unequivocally that if ISIL consolidates its gains in the Mideast, “it’s just a matter of time before they start looking outward and start looking at the West and at the United States in particular.” Now is the time for action, but it won’t be effective unless Obama understands that a military solution to the crisis must form an integral part of the overall solution.
— David Adesnik is a visiting fellow at AEI’s Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies.