Skip to main content

Obama's sensible Iraq plan is likely doomed

By Barak Mendelsohn
June 20, 2014 -- Updated 0255 GMT (1055 HKT)
A woman walks around the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday, September 19. Some of the world's top diplomats <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/15/world/meast/isis-threat/'>have pledged to support Iraq</a> in its fight against ISIS militants by "any means necessary," including "appropriate military assistance." ISIS has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq. A woman walks around the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday, September 19. Some of the world's top diplomats have pledged to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS militants by "any means necessary," including "appropriate military assistance." ISIS 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
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
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
77
78
79
80
81
>
>>
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
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1353 GMT (2153 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT