Skip to main content

Obama's sensible Iraq plan is likely doomed

By Barak Mendelsohn
June 20, 2014 -- Updated 0255 GMT (1055 HKT)
An Iraqi child walks through a displacement camp Saturday, June 28, in Khazair, Iraq. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria. An Iraqi child walks through a displacement camp Saturday, June 28, in Khazair, Iraq. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria.
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
<<
<
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
>
>>
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
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1205 GMT (2005 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT