Skip to main content

Obama's sensible Iraq plan is likely doomed

By Barak Mendelsohn
updated 10:55 PM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
Smoke rises during fighting in the Syrian city of Kobani on Monday, October 27. At least 800 people have been killed there in the last 40 days as ISIS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters battle for control of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Smoke rises during fighting in the Syrian city of Kobani on Monday, October 27. At least 800 people have been killed there in the last 40 days as ISIS militants and Syrian Kurdish fighters battle for control of the city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
HIDE CAPTION
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
<<
<
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
>
>>
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 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT