It took barely 30 months — the tiniest of blips on any timeline — after the last American soldier withdrew for Iraq to collapse into anarchy and jihadist control. The Obama administration’s failure to secure a status of forces agreement (SOFA) to keep a stabilizing U.S. military presence in Iraq after 2011 has now been revealed as a disastrous mistake, and is directly related to the bloodshed now sweeping the country. Now, Iraqi prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, undoubtedly one of the very worst foreign leaders ever supported by Washington, is begging the Obama administration to save his skin (and his country), by launching air attacks on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadists setting their sights on Baghdad.
So far, the Obama administration has refused prior requests for help from Maliki, but that almost certainly was due to either to its miscalculation of the military situation or its desire to wait and see if Maliki could save himself. I’ll let others discuss the disaster that has let Iran become the main influence over Iraq’s government, and the potential that Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards will defeat ISIS, thus further expanding Iranian influence in the Middle East. However, it is worth looking at what military options President Obama has. It seems unlikely that he will want to go down in history as the president who “lost” Iraq just a few years after trumpeting the return of U.S. soldiers. That means that some type of U.S. military operation is certainly possible as ISIS gets closer to Baghdad.
The Iraqis themselves already asked for air strikes, and it is almost certain that the president would follow this course if he decided to intervene. There is no probability that he will insert U.S. ground forces back into the conflict — and rightly so, given the fragility of the situation (again, partly of his own making). Thus, once again, the wave of the future for U.S. military engagement around the globe is represented by the use of airpower. Targeted air strikes on a broad front against massed ISIS fighters, their headquarters or communications nodes, their staging grounds, and supply lines inside Iraq represent the best hope for slowing them down. That means, at the upper end of the operations spectrum, potentially B-1 and B-52 strikes, or more targeted strikes by tactical aircraft, such as F-16s and F-18s. However, the distance inland to Baghdad from the Mediterranean means that most of any air attack would likely come from land-based U.S. Air Force units in Qatar, the U.A.E. and Kuwait, along with the U.S. aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, which is currently in the North Arabian Sea, near the Persian Gulf.
There are two questions the president must answer before he commits to any air-strike campaign: can it make a material difference in the battle, and can the current Iraqi government save itself even with American help? Maliki has been a disaster for Iraq, and there can be little confidence that he will reform, even if he survives. On the other hand, the last thing America can want is an Iraq under complete jihadist control, or one where only Iran has any influence. If that is the case, then the prospect of U.S. airstrikes must be considered not only immediately, but on a scale that would make a difference in a rapidly unfolding disaster. That does not mean John Kerry-style “unbelievably small” pinpricks, but rather, sustained heavy bombing.
Such an operation would announce the resumption of a war the Obama administration has done its best to forget. Whether domestic political calculation or geopolitical stability wins out remains, appropriately, up in the air.