Editor’s Note: Barak Mendelsohn is an associate professor of political science at Haverford College and a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His recent article “Collateral Damage in Iraq: The Rise of ISIS and the Fall of al Qaeda” appeared in Foreign Affairs. Follow him on twitter@BarakMendelsohn
Barak Mendelsohn: President Obama's plan for the Iraq crisis is sensible
He says the problem is that it requires Iraqi factions and regional powers to cooperate
The odds are slim that the parties involved will do their part, he says
Mendelsohn: Obama had to take some action to deal with nation that the U.S. "broke"
Over a week after ISIS took over Mosul and started advancing toward Baghdad, President Obama has articulated the view of the United States on the situation in Iraq and the actions it will pursue. The plan is sensible. It captures well the complexity of the situation and what must happen for peace to be restored.
It is also unlikely to bring meaningful results, precisely because the conditions for success are unlikely to be met.
The President is facing growing criticism over the deterioration of the situation in Iraq and the emergence of a radical jihadi state in large parts of Iraq and Syria. Whereas some of the criticism is justified – for example, that the administration’s inaction in Syria contributed to the rise of ISIS – much of it is not. The Iraqi mess is largely of Iraq’s own making and that is where the solutions must originate.
In a political climate where expectations for instant solutions clouds the thinking of many politicians, the President has to be seen as proactive, while at the same time proceeding with caution. He does not want to take rushed and fruitless action that would cost American lives and money and may further undermine U.S. interests in the Middle East.
The option of total commitment to the disastrous and sectarian government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would be foolish. U.S. power could reverse ISIS’ advances, but at a steep price, which the American people will not tolerate.
Moreover, without addressing the root causes of Sunni discontent in Iraq, U.S. military intervention will only serve as a bandage over an untreated wound. President Obama seems to believe, correctly in my opinion, that full support for al-Maliki will not give him (or other Shiite leaders who may assume leadership in his stead) the incentives to rise above sectarian politics and promote a truly inclusive Iraqi state. And it could make things worse for the United States by alienating Sunni states, including longtime allies of the United States, and by further radicalizing Sunni youth, who would see U.S. actions as reflecting an anti-Sunni attitude. This could be a boon to jihadi groups and rejuvenate jihadis’ anti-American agenda.
However, doing nothing is not an attractive option either. It incurs additional damages to the reputation of the United States and is hard to swallow coming on the heels of successive foreign policy failures. The President also cannot be seen as completely disengaged from the country the United States “broke” only a decade ago. And accusations resonate, even among his supporters, that had he left a residual military force in Iraq the recent embarrassment could have been avoided.
The compromise, characteristic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, is going small. The United States will assist with intelligence, send advisers, and contribute to the training of Iraqis to take on the ISIS challenge. If the circumstances justify it, the United States may even use its military assets to hit ISIS targets from the air. But the President emphasized that the United States cannot resolve the conflict by itself, and that at the end of the day a political solution is required.
The United States will engage in diplomacy and seek to bring Iraq’s neighbors together to help end the conflict and create a more fair and inclusive state. The President once again declares U.S. commitment to support good causes, but also to rely on interested regional parties to accomplish the objectives (and share the burden in the process).
Of course, for that plan to work, Iraq’s neighbors must recognize the threat from the turmoil and more importantly, they must be willing to take concerted and costly action.
This is the real weakness of the President’s outline. It is a sensible analysis of what conditions must be met and actions must be taken to stop Iraq’s civil war. But it is unlikely to work because the relevant actors, Iraqis as well as neighboring states, are reluctant to cooperate and make compromises. And of course the enemy, ISIS, also has a say in how events unfold.
It is possible that with this speech President Obama bought himself some quiet, for a few days at least.
Another surprise advance by ISIS would increase the pressure on the United States, but such a development appears more remote now that Iraq’s armed forces have regrouped, with the important support of Iranian forces as well as capable and highly motivated Shiite militias.
Baghdad is not Mosul, and last week’s lightning advance will not repeat itself. While violence will probably reach the capital, ISIS lacks the capacity to make serious inroads into Baghdad. The front should be stabilized soon; a counterattack will not be a surprising development either. If that happens, the United States will be able to claim it helped, while Iraq’s government and its Iranian partners do the heavy lifting, as it should be.
The military threat will not disappear anytime soon, yet it may be contained. But without a genuine cooperative effort by the many interested sides, the prospects for calm in Iraq are low. Obama knows that no presidential speech, but also no U.S. military action, could achieve that.