President Barack Obama said Thursday that the administration was considering “all options,” including military action, to help the government of Iraq fend off advancing Sunni Muslim extremists. But we would be surprised — and disappointed — if the administration injected American forces into a conflict from which the U.S. finally extricated itself only three years ago. Ominous as they are, this week’s developments justify neither American boots on the ground nor airstrikes carried out by American pilots.
This week’s upsurge of violence is partly a spillover of the civil war in Syria — the group that gained control of Mosul and Tikrit is called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — but it also reflects the failure of Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to establish legitimacy with Sunni Iraqis. It’s thus another reminder of the naivete of U.S. strategists who thought that the sectarian hatreds unleashed by the ouster of Saddam Hussein could be easily subdued in a Western-style democracy.
The New York Times reported that even before this week’s victories by insurgents, Maliki pleaded with the Obama administration to launch airstrikes against areas used by the rebels to launch attacks. The administration refused, but it will now be pressured to reconsider. How should it respond?
Obama should apply the principles he outlined in a speech last month at West Point’s commencement. In that speech, he pledged to assist Iraq (along with Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey) in combating terrorist violence. In Iraq, that assistance has taken the form of munificent military aid including F-16 fighters, attack helicopters and Hellfire tactical missiles. If those resources haven’t sufficed to enable Iraqi forces to resist the insurgents, that isn’t a sufficient argument for putting American pilots in harm’s way.
In his West Point speech, Obama also said that he would approve direct U.S. military action in response to specific threats against Americans, and cited drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia. While we’re uncomfortable with the number of drone strikes the U.S. has carried out there and in Pakistan, if a terrorist is plotting an attack on Americans, it shouldn’t matter whether he is located in Yemen or Iraq. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. should deploy aircraft — manned or unmanned — to shore up Maliki’s government.
Obama’s critics glibly blame the spiral of violence in Iraq on the president’s failure to secure an agreement with Iraq that would have kept a residual U.S. military presence there. But it’s not clear that a few thousand American trainers would have made a major difference in the readiness or resilience of Iraqi soldiers. If there was a time when the U.S. could control events in Iraq, that time has long passed. Obama should remember that as he ponders his “options.”