‘We broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar. We helped vulnerable people reach safety, and we helped save many innocent lives. Because of these efforts, we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain.” So said President Obama last Thursday.
Those words reflect the President’s political calculations. They do not reflect the state of Iraq. After all, aware that his liberal base supports a foreign policy defined by rhetoric and hashtags, the President has an interest in presenting a simplified version of Iraq. His intended message is clear: I have saved lives and protected vital American interests, and have done so in a nearly cost-free way. This is Obama’s salesmanship, intended for domestic audience.
In reality, the terrorist-controlled region now going by the name the Islamic State remains strong. As Liz Sly notes in the Washington Post, the group continues its slaughter-slavery strategy every single day in north-central Iraq. Those who refuse to pledge fealty face brutal treatment at best, or death. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that President Obama’s optimism is premature.
Don’t get me wrong — I accept that our options in Iraq are limited. Absent American ground forces, the Islamic State will retain its power and dream up new atrocities that it will soon commit. But there is little domestic appetite for the return of our ground forces to Iraq.
Still, while the White House claims its Iraq mission is a limited humanitarian-security endeavor, the evidence proves otherwise. This weekend, the U.S. military supported a Kurdish assault on a terrorist-held dam near Mosul. The dam, as the BBC reports, “is of huge strategic significance in terms of water and power resources.” The administration says its goal was to prevent the Islamic State from flooding a large portion of northern Iraq. At present, however, American actions in Iraq are incongruous with our stated strategy. The actual intent was not merely to prevent flooding but to degrade the overall power of the Islamic State. President Obama should acknowledge this goal and recognize that fulfilling it will require more than air strikes.
For a start, he should grasp the growing disenchantment of Sunni tribes in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Thus far limiting its focus to Iraq, the administration is neglecting resistance of people in the mid–Iraq-Syria border region to the terrorists; this region is crucial for ISIS’s supply, trade, and command. Instead, in America’s absence, the jihadists are going on a beheading spree to crush the tribal resistance. Obama’s inattention to the resistance is a strategic disaster. As I argued on Friday on The McLaughlin Group, these tribes adhere to a far more moderate school of Sunni Islam than the Islamic State does. Aided by American air support, arms, and perhaps U.S. Special Forces A-Teams (designed for such operations), these tribes could greatly increase internal pressures against the Islamic State alongside the external pressure (both military and political) that we bring to bear. Don’t forget, there’s a textbook example here: A similar approach brought al-Qaeda in Iraq to its knees.
Yes, the Iraq crisis is profoundly challenging in the Middle East and highly sensitive at home. The president must tread a difficult line. That being said, to prevent Iraq’s devolution into a cauldron of extremism, he must, for once, sideline domestic politics. Instead, short of deploying conventional ground forces, President Obama should embrace a strategy that uses military power in the service of an unequivocal goal: the marginalization and degradation of the Islamic State.
The president can and must carve a path between our inadequate present strategy and a re-invasion of Iraq.