We remember the specter of sectarian violence — al-Qaeda’s attacks on mosques and pilgrims, militias that carried out campaigns of intimidation and campaigns of assassination. And in the face of ancient divisions, you stood firm to help those Iraqis who put their faith in the future.
— President Obama, announcing the last withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, December 14, 2011
When he spoke those words nearly three years ago, Obama thought the war was finally over. Accordingly, yesterday’s announcement might have been the most difficult of his presidency: a speech he never wanted to give.
But the urgent requirement for U.S. action in Iraq is obvious. No other nation can provide the intelligence, target acquisition, aviation, and command-control capabilities that are so desperately needed to restrain ISIS’s advance. Only America has the influence and interlocutor relationships to bring Iraqi political factions back from the paranoid abyss of sectarian bloodletting. Absent Obama, Maliki would see no remedy but the hand of Iran.
In short, America had to return to Iraq. I’ve often disagreed with the president on foreign-policy issues, especially on the Middle East. Nevertheless, Obama deserves credit for finally recognizing his responsibility. His liberal base will likely react with fury. Until now, Obama has held himself up for responsibly ending America’s military involvement in Iraq. But on Thursday, Obama implicitly admitted that his 2011 withdrawal was premature. He’s also had to admit a deeper truth: that America cannot shield its interests and values by sitting on the sidelines. This cuts at the heart of the Obama doctrine.
Moreover, in sending Special Forces and support personnel to Iraq, Obama knows he’s putting those A-teams and operators in harm’s way. It’s no secret that a number of Iraqi military units are untrustworthy. In equal measure, Obama is aware of what will happen to U.S. personnel should ISIS capture them — also, that Iran may use its Revolutionary Guard forces to disrupt American operations. To be sure, his is not an easy call.
Still, it seems that Obama is attempting to find a middle ground between major intervention and doing nothing. By deploying Special Forces, the president is almost certainly laying the groundwork for air strikes against ISIS. After all, the USS George H. W. Bush carrier strike group is now staged to provide just that capability. Supporting Iraqi forces, U.S. air-attack controllers will be able to direct U.S. Navy strikes against ISIS formations. That’s not all. As national-security expert Robert Caruso told me, the administration should also “weigh the utility of airstrikes over the border into Syria.” Regardless, to move south on to Baghdad, ISIS units will adopt overt military formations. That will make them highly vulnerable. If nothing else, Obama’s decision signals a shift in the momentum. It tells Maliki that America is serious about preventing Iraq’s collapse.
And that message helps with something else. Resolving Iraq’s crisis will take more than the U.S. military. In large part, it will require a new relationship with Maliki. A great diplomatic advantage of this deployment is that it forces Maliki to accept America’s irreplaceability as an ally. Conversely, the Iraqi prime minister knows that Iran’s primary interest is the expansion of its own theocratic power.
Maliki is also astute in the matter of Iran’s military limitations in intelligence and targeting. American military expertise gives Maliki his best hope of retaining Iraqi independence over the long term. Equally, this understanding enables Obama to enforce a price tag for his support: He can demand that Maliki make concessions to the Sunni political blocs led by Ayad Allawi, Usama al-Nujayfi, and Saleh al-Mutlaq. It could also enable Obama to move Maliki away from the Sadrists and ISCI (two major Shia political blocs that have manipulated him to their own advantage).
Ultimately, Obama’s new orders represent an overdue but critically important first step. Facing the cataclysm that a failed state in Iraq would be, Obama had no choice but to act.