The best part of the US President Barack Obama’s update on Thursday regarding developments in Iraq has been his promise that he will be vigilant about ‘mission creep’ and «American troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again».
Cynics may say this is how all ‘mission creeps’ began, but Obama robustly defended his optimism: «We [US] do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq». It sounded credible. But then, conditions apply.
The then US President John Kennedy also had said in 1963, «In the final analysis, it their war. They are the ones who have to win or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it – the people of Vietnam». Obama’s remarks about Iraq situation eerily echoed Kennedy’s.
Arguably, the circumstances are different today. The Cold War setting no more exists and the US has looked down the Iraqi inferno once already and the searing memory still lingers – just 30 months have lapsed since American troops returned home; the nature of the enemy is completely different today; and, of course, Iraq is hurtling toward fragmentation.
Obama repeatedly said that a political solution is needed in Iraq. The key word was «consensus» – consensus within Iraq involving all sections of society. But the paradox is that such a consensus within Iraq is inextricably linked to consensus regionally, and, in turn, its underpinning lies in a consensus internationally among the big powers.
However, this is also where Obama’s speech remains flawed, since he was forthcoming only on the imperative to forge a consensus among the Iraqi Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds to stand up and be counted in the momentous struggle to preserve their country’s unity and its fledgling democracy.
Of course, Obama was right in stressing that such a consensus demands enlightened leadership in Baghdad, which in an accommodative spirit respects the aspirations of all sections of society – in short, an inclusive Iraqi power structure.
On the other hand, Obama was taciturn about the regional consensus – although holding out a tantalizing offer to work with Iran – and he had nothing to say about influential world powers, especially Russia and China. Obama merely said he is deputing Secretary of State John Kerry to visit the Middle Eastern and European capitals. Kerry was in Cairo on Sunday from where he proceeded to Baghdad on Monday.
Obama sidestepped the imperative need to forge a consensus with Russia and China regarding the stabilization of Iraq, and yet, these are its «natural allies» when it comes to battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL], which is a terrorist movement more abhorrent than al-Qaeda. Indeed, these two potential allies not only have amassed considerable political capital in the Middle East, which will be helpful in mobilizing a regional consensus regarding Iraq, but they are also the right partners needed today for the US to bring the United Nations into the picture.
Working on parallel tracks
This needs some explaining. While it is perfectly in accordance with the international law that Obama is dealing directly, bilaterally with the legitimate and democratically elected government in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, the fact remains that the ISIL embodies a global problem and it can be dealt with more effectively with the imprimatur of the UN, which carries the kind of moral authority that the US lacks in Iraq after having destroyed that country through the past decade.
Yet, Obama who is passionately devoted to multilateralism in solving regional conflicts is not yet thinking on these lines with regard to Iraq.
Quite obviously, ISIL is a Syrian problem as well and any effort to vanquish this abominable creature from the region remains impractical unless it is fought with equal tenacity in Syria too. But the plain truth is that the US lacks the wherewithal to do it alone. Suffice to say, any whichever way one looks at it, Obama needs to pick up the phone and talks things over urgently with his Russian and Chinese counterparts Vladimir Putin and Xi Xinping. The dire straits in Syria and Iraq alone demand it, aside Obama’s statesmanship and his obligations as a world leader and a Nobel.
A regional consensus in dealing with the ISIL menace is difficult to reach, given the acute contradictions in the Middle East’s politics. Here too an international effort is overdue. The US, Russia and China can play an effective role together or on parallel tracks in nudging Teheran and Riyadh to a Saudi-Iranian reconciliation that remains central to any credible attempt to stabilize the situation in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The good part is that there are signs that whatever might have been the ISIL’s mentorship in Syria in the past by some Arab states and Turkey, these countries today also seem to be feeling uneasy whether some day they too might have to face a blowback.
The ISIL is in some ways a far more challenging enemy than al-Qaeda insofar as it is more like a militia similar to Boko Haram and other localized fiefdoms that ere endemic to lawless regions. Yet, on the other hand, it is more vulnerable than al-Qaeda, which has been an elusive enemy, given the ISIL’s overt character, its worldly preoccupations such as lucrative business dealings and its expanding footprint in the region. It success in Iraq is definitely attributable to the support it has received from disaffected sections of the Sunni population, the tribes and erstwhile Ba’athist elements.
Therefore, Obama is right in judging that ultimately the crisis boils down to a failure of leadership in Baghdad and the lack of a political consensus in that country. No doubt, the solution has to be found through an inclusive power structure that accommodates the aspirations of Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds. This brings us back to the role Iran can play, which Obama rightly emphasized.
The Iranian statements are full of caveats about the US’ intentions in Iraq. There are gnawing doubts whether Washington is preparing a quagmire for Iran. Thus, the Iranian statements resort to conspiracy theories that the US only has mentored the ISIL (which is probably a preposterous idea). The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said that Washington is trying to upturn the verdict of recent parliamentary elections in Iraq and to have Maliki replaced by a pliant figure who would serve American interests.
There could be some truth in that accusation, but the heart of the matter is that it is only the Iranians who can mediate an intra-Iraqi consensus today. Iran is a stakeholder in Iraq’s stability and unity and it is quintessentially a status quo regional power and does not seek any fundamental changes in the region’s make-up.
Warding off mission creep
In retrospect, he US had been barking up the wrong tree by expending its energy and resources in a futile policy of delegitimizing Iran’s role in regional politics. The obsessive drive to ‘contain’ Iran has led the US to overlook that it is its Gulf allies who have been the perfidious and disruptive actors in regional politics. What is needed today is a paradigm shift in the US’ regional policies.
The recent US-Iranian engagement offers the Obama administration a window of opportunity to bring in new thinking. Obama’s remarks on Thursday show nascent signs of new thinking and Tehran would have taken note of it.
However, the danger lies somewhere else. In the absence of a ‘big picture’ of forging an international consensus over the Iraq crisis, Obama might end up tinkering with the ISIL challenge and unwittingly get into the ‘mission creep’ he seeks to avoid. The House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has a point in warning that numbers have «a tendency to grow». Obama’s insistence that the 300 «military advisors» being dispatched to Iraq will avoid combat could easily get broken.
When Khamenei voiced Iran’s opposition to outside intervention in Iraq, he probably had much the same worry in mind, and as Iraq’s next-door neighbor, it is a very legitimate concern.
Obama’s aides say the military advisors will be «special operators», that is, code for Special Operations Forces. Obama took pains to clarify that the advisors won’t see fighting, but then, ‘combat’ is an elastic term when it comes to the special operations folks. The Iraq war veterans in America already warn that once the US special operations forces land in Iraq and get embedded with the Iraqi counterparts, all bets are off, especially in the current extremely dangerous security environment.
Indeed, what makes one uneasy is that Obama’s statement on Thursday was on a largely tentative note. True, Obama lacks the passionate enthusiasm or, perhaps, the will of his predecessor in the White House – or, his predecessor’s father George H.W. Bush – to fix the Iraq question. True, the US military also feels fatigued; the US economic recovery is slow; resources are limited and foreign funding for America’s wars is unlikely. Public opinion in the US certainly militates against wars in faraway lands.
But, having said all that, the danger is still there that the scope of the Iraq mission may expand out of control. This is where a multilateral approach built on a genuine international and regional consensus can help Obama ward off the ‘mission creep’.