The Complex

As Iraq Mission Expands, White House Struggles to Define Its Goal and Objectives

Nearly two weeks into the Obama administration’s bombing campaign in Iraq, the White House is still struggling to define a conflict in which it’s launched more than 70 airstrikes at Sunni militants and has deployed more than 800 U.S. military personnel. But as the mission wears on, the public articulation of what the United States ...

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly two weeks into the Obama administration’s bombing campaign in Iraq, the White House is still struggling to define a conflict in which it’s launched more than 70 airstrikes at Sunni militants and has deployed more than 800 U.S. military personnel.

But as the mission wears on, the public articulation of what the United States is doing in Iraq seems to be more and more elusive — and evolving. The administration entered the conflict with an aggressive airstrike and airdrop campaign in northern Iraq based, it said, on the need to protect the U.S. personnel in the country and to prevent militants from slaughtering members of the Yazidi religious minority sect stranded atop Mount Sinjar. Then last week, U.S. officials announced that a reconnaissance team that had visited Sinjar discovered that the humanitarian crisis wasn’t as bad as first feared, thus removing one of the main justifications for the air campaign. In recent days, the United States has launched a barrage of airstrikes in and around Mosul that appear to be directly targeting the Islamic State, leading many to conclude that the mission is expanding beyond the administration’s stated goals and objectives.

"The administration can call it whatever they want, but semantics aside, they’re now waging war," said Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

The violence in northern Iraq took a grisly turn Tuesday as video images of an American freelance journalist, James Foley, surfaced that apparently showed him being beheaded by the Islamic State. White House officials said the intelligence community is scrambling to determine the video’s authenticity. "If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We will provide more information when it is available," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement.

But while it appears that U.S. objectives are limited in Iraq, there is enough wiggle room that officials could use the administration’s broad definition of its operations to justify an expanded conflict.

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) is hell-bent on threatening Americans and U.S. interests and has already caused human suffering on an enormous scale inside Iraq, so the White House’s stated goals could clear the way for significantly expanded U.S. actions, said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal.

"If you review the administration’s rhetoric carefully, you’ll see that their definition of the terrorist threat is directly tied to their desire to avoid putting American boots on the ground," Joscelyn said. "I’m sure this influences their thinking when it comes to defining America’s objectives in Iraq and the nature of our enemies there."

The confusion is also cropping up in how the Pentagon is describing its operations and the reasons behind them. Last week, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the U.S. military had three objectives in Iraq.

"They are, one, to protect American citizens and facilities; two, to provide advice and assistance to Iraqi forces as they battle ISIL; and, three, to join with international partners to address the humanitarian crisis," he told reporters on Aug. 14.

But this week, he emphasized that there were only two missions for U.S. airstrikes.

"One is in humanitarian assistance operations, and one is to protect U.S. personnel and facilities," Kirby said. "That’s how decisions are made with respect to airstrikes."

Pentagon officials said the mission itself hasn’t been changing even as the public case for it — and its stated objectives — continues to evolve. Still, the shifting messages about the growing campaign highlight the administration’s internal divisions about how seriously to get involved in a conflict and country the White House had long hoped to avoid.

On Friday, the mission seemed to expand slightly as defense officials announced that more bombs were being dropped in and around Mosul, which IS had taken over more than two months ago, and in the vicinity of the massive Mosul Dam, which provides electricity to millions of Iraqis. Militants have failed to properly maintain the dam and at times threatened to destroy it; either step would flood broad swaths of the country.

In the days since that portion of the campaign began, the United States conducted more than 40 airstrikes to help the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga retake the Mosul Dam from the Islamic State. If militants were to blow up the already fragile dam, it could send a wave of water 60 feet high down the Tigris River, flooding much of downtown Baghdad. Pentagon officials say these airstrikes are being conducted to avert a humanitarian crisis were the dam to be destroyed.

"If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would have threatened the lives of thousands of civilians and endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad," President Barack Obama said Monday in a press briefing at the White House that he used to announce that the dam was back in Iraqi control.

But the bombing campaign in and around Mosul is, for many, pushing the boundaries of the U.S. military’s stated goals because it appears designed to batter IS rather than protect U.S. personnel or avert a humanitarian crisis. On Tuesday, Kirby pushed back against the idea that the goals or objectives of the mission were changing — or expanding.

"The airstrikes that we conducted in and around Mosul Dam over the last 72 hours or so fit into both those categories, both helping prevent what could be a huge humanitarian problem should the dam be blown … and also to protect U.S. personnel and facilities," Kirby said.

The Obama administration’s difficulties in articulating just what the campaign in Iraq is or what the long-term strategy should look like may be a reflection of the confusion among Americans. A new USA Today/Pew Research Center poll finds that more Americans think the country has a responsibility to respond to the violence in Iraq at the same time that many fear the United States could return to another long war in Iraq, in what amounts to a shift in thinking among Americans. According to the poll, 44 percent of Americans think the United States has a responsibility to act, up from 39 percent a month ago. Meanwhile, 41 percent believe the United States doesn’t have a responsibility to act, down from 55 percent who thought that last month.

As the Pentagon’s operations continue in Iraq, there are other indications that the administration is reluctant to "brand" its operations there. That’s true in the fact that the operation still has no name. From Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in 1983, to Desert Storm in Iraq, the military almost always brands its operations, big or small. For a military that names almost any operation, the bombing campaign in Iraq that began Aug. 8 still lacks an operational name.

Last week, Kirby said he didn’t know why the operation didn’t have a name but that it didn’t matter anyway since it’s not as if the United States was attempting to play down the mission.

"It doesn’t matter if it has a name or not," he said.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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