The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) continued its seemingly relentless push towards Baghdad, conquering nearly enough territory to attack the Iraqi capital from three different directions. The al Qaeda offshoot also took its offensive into cyberspace, disseminating brutal photos on social media that appeared to show the group’s fighters executing dozens of unarmed Iraqi security personnel. And on Sunday, the United States announced that it would temporarily evacuate some of its over 5,000 embassy employees in Baghdad in the face of the ISIS advance.
Thousands of miles away in Washington, lawmakers, retired military officers, and former senior Obama administration officials agreed that the crisis posed a historic threat to Iraq. They clashed, though, on a pair of key questions: what to do, and how much of the blame should be placed on the shoulders of President Obama.
Republicans like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham had simple answers for both: airstrikes, and a lot. Graham assigned the recent security collapse — and its potentially dire implications for Iraq and the region — to the Obama administration’s 2011 decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq after the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to sign a long-term security agreement between the two countries. "The decision to withdraw U.S. forces created a vacuum," he said on CBS’s Face the Nation. His support for renewed military action was clear. "We need airpower immediately to stop the [ISIS] advance toward Baghdad." Democrats, including former Obama advisor Tom Donilon and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, presented conditional support for airstrikes, but argued that greater intelligence-gathering — and political reconciliation among Iraq’s clashing factions — would be prerequisites.
Left unchecked, Graham and other Republicans argued, ISIS threatened Iraq and the entire region.
"This is another 9/11 in the making," Graham told CNN’s Gloria Borger on State of the Union, referring to the ongoing ISIS assault. "If the central government in Iraq collapses," Graham said, "the Iranians [will] dominate the south — they’ll own all the resources in the south — these [ISIS] guys will operate from Baghdad to Kurdistan all the way into Syria. They will consolidate economic and military power, they’ll march toward Jordan and Lebanon, and they will use that space to attack us."
Democrats defended the White House and said the insurgents’ ability to quickly conquer large swaths of Iraq showed the consequences of Maliki’s crackdown on the country’s Sunni minority. Maliki, Democrats and several retired generals have said in recent days, alienated Sunnis so completely that many are openly or tacitly supporting ISIS.
Tom Donilon, the former Obama national security advisor, defended the administration’s record. "The Iraqi government was given the space and time to put together the kind of inclusive government needed" to address sectarian tensions, he told CBS’s Bob Schieffer. "It failed to do so." The problem, Donilon said, was not the Obama administration’s withdrawal — it was the Iraqi government’s failure to build a sustainable political climate after American troops packed up.
Neither opponents nor defenders of the Obama administration’s 2011 pullout advocated for the deployment of American ground forces. But assessments diverged on the course and timeline of potential U.S. action. Donilon, echoing President Obama’s statement on Friday, argued that any American strike should come after the Iraqi government has "pulled itself together politically." But Mike Rogers, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, claimed that the violence was moving faster than any potential political process. "We can’t wait days and weeks and months to scratch our heads," Rogers said on Fox News Sunday. "We have to ask one single question: is al Qaeda holding land the size of Indiana a problem for the United States?"
The lawmakers, generals, and former Obama administration officials pointed to a range of other questions, too: How should the government in Baghdad facilitate the inclusion of Sunnis in the midst of civil war? How can the Iraqi army develop into a force not for sectarian interests, but for the rule of law? And how could Maliki, with his history of sectarian favoritism, realize whatever the answers to these difficult questions might be?
Few answers were ventured Sunday morning. The more tempered assessments — from Paul Eaton, the retired general formerly charged with training Iraqi troops, on State of the Union; from former Army Vice Chief of Staff Peter Chiarelli, on This Week — stopped short of the Iraqi political scene. Chiarelli, who suggested that ISIS might not make it to Baghdad, alluded only to "some kind of inclusion of the Sunnis into the government." Eaton, who noted the "bad optics" of civilian deaths in potential airstrikes, said that the United States should provide Baghdad with intelligence support — but didn’t indicate how Washington might encourage the rebuilding of Iraq’s fragile domestic politics. Manchin, of the Senate Armed Services Committee, reiterated the problem of morale in the Iraqi army. But he closed his interview on Meet the Press with bluster. "If you intend to do America or any Americans harm," he said to David Gregory, "we will bring a ring of fire that you never, ever could’ve imagined upon you." On This Week, Mike McCaul, chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, suggested that Washington would best leave these problems to its experts. "I would call the top team of commanders and diplomats who won this war," he said.