Skip to main content

Obama's sensible Iraq plan is likely doomed

By Barak Mendelsohn
updated 10:55 PM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
Displaced Iraqis receive clothes from a charity at a refugee camp near Feeshkhabour, Iraq, on Tuesday, August 19. They have been fleeing from the militant group ISIS, which has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq. Displaced Iraqis receive clothes from a charity at a refugee camp near Feeshkhabour, Iraq, on Tuesday, August 19. They have been fleeing from the militant group ISIS, which has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq.
HIDE CAPTION
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 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"

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

(CNN) -- 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.

Barak Mendelsohn
Barak Mendelsohn

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.

Opinion: Can Obama avoid mission creep in Iraq?

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.

How will Iraq affect Obama's legacy?
Obama to send military advisers to Iraq
Maliki falling out of favor with U.S.

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.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT