- By Dov ZakheimDov Zakheim is Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies and former Under Secretary of Defense.
Even as the Obama administration continues to "weigh options," the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) continue to press on, taking more towns in western and central Iraq, and posing an increasingly credible threat to take Baghdad. Meanwhile, the administration, after much soul searching and with the utmost reluctance, has decided to send 300 of what it calls "advisors" to support the Iraqi army, while other units have been dispatched to the Arabian Gulf as a "show of force." More than advisors, and certainly more than a "show" is required to have any hope of stopping the militants, much less rolling them back.
Despite his decision to dispatch advisors, President Barack Obama continues to insist that he will not authorize "boots on the ground," though he has reinterpreted his statement to mean "combat boots." His determination to minimize America’s involvement in Iraq’s latest civil war, an overreaction to the Bush administration’s intervention in that country, should encourage the ISIS fighters to press on. Both Shiite irregulars and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces will, of course, continue to battle the militants, and perhaps the advisors will help the Iraqi army to find its backbone. Nevertheless, it will be far more difficult for the army and Shiite irregulars to recover territory in the Sunni areas than to protect those in the southern, predominantly Shiite, region that has not yet been lost.
The Obama administration also appears to be moving toward authorizing a combination of air and drone strikes against the ISIS militants. While air strikes, even on a large scale, might satisfy the demand by some in Congress that the United States "do something," they are unlikely to stop the ISIS forces from advancing. The North Vietnamese demonstrated that they were prepared to absorb large-scale bomber strikes and sustain thousands of casualties while they pursued their ultimately successful goal of driving America out of Vietnam. Militant Islamists will be even less prone to give in as a result of air strikes, since they see themselves going directly to heaven if they die in battle.
To make matters worse, the administration is talking to Iran about some form of cooperation against the ISIS rebels. Working with the Iranians will only strengthen their hand in Baghdad’s governing circles. This will be the case whether the sectarian and autocratic Nouri al-Maliki remains prime minister or the duplicitous Ahmed Chalabi supplants him. In addition, the administration’s willingness to cooperate with Tehran may encourage the Israelis, already feeling betrayed by Washington’s willingness to accept a Hamas-PLO unity government, to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which in turn could drag the United States into a wider regional war.
If these developments were not enough evidence of the administration’s ham-handed approach to unfolding events in the region, there is its policy of continuing to keep itself at arm’s length from the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. The pro-Western, anti-Islamist Kurds are America’s natural allies. During the nineties, they were the focus of American support while Saddam Hussein was in power. Yet the administration remains reluctant to exert itself on their behalf, and, in particular, to help modernize their military equipment.
For their part, however, the Kurds, having seized Kirkuk, their historic capital, are determined both to control that city and their long-term fate. They will press for independence if the sectarian fighting continues to rage south of their border. The Obama administration, which quickly recognized a far less stable South Sudan, should recognize the new Kurdish state. Given its willingness to work even with Iran in order to prop up the central government in Baghdad, however, it is unlikely to do so, prompting Kurdish resentment that will not easily be mollified.
While the prospects for an outcome in Iraq that would be favorable to American interests are becoming increasingly dim, in a sense the administration is acting consistently with its national security strategy. This strategy can best be described as one of avoidance and minimalism. Implicitly taking its inspiration from George Washington’s 1796 farewell address to the nation, the administration is doing its utmost to avoid being drawn into another conflict. At the same time, it is funding a minimalist defense posture that limits its ability to conduct major operations simultaneously in regions where American interests could be threatened. Like Washington, the administration seeks to focus on nation building at home. Unfortunately, it confronts a very different international reality than did the first president as he left office. America has global political, economic and strategic interests that George Washington could hardly have begun to envisage.
The administration’s reluctance to support the Syrian opposition in a serious way; its flaccid response to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine; its urge to depart from Afghanistan regardless of the prevailing security situation, are consistent with its strategy of avoidance. But America’s behavior has created the worldwide perception of a passive America, unsure of its role as leader of the free world. Its vacillation as Iraq falls apart not only reinforces that perception, but threatens to encourage aggressive behavior in other locales, such as the South China Sea.
It may already be too late for Washington to have a material impact on developments in Iraq. But the fact that events in that country, like Russian action in Ukraine or Assad’s survival in Syria, caught the administration by surprise, should be a wake-up call to jettison America’s current strategy of avoidance. It should be replaced with one that is modest, yet realistic, one that underscores American world leadership, and is sustained by adequate, indeed, robust defense resources. The administration has rightly emphasized that it must conform to 21st century realities. Those realities are not, however, what it anticipated and they simply cannot be addressed by a strategy that was perfectly tailored for the beginning of the 19th century but is totally irrelevant to the demands of the 21st.