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Obama’s ‘Mission Unaccomplished’ Moment

The president didn’t want to talk about Iraq during the State of the Union, but the Islamic State's gains left him no choice.


President Barack Obama has long used State of the Union addresses to boast that he has fulfilled a central promise from his 2008 campaign: ending what he once derided as a “dumb war” by bringing all U.S. troops home from Iraq. And even though this year’s State of the Union is Obama’s first since he was forced to deploy hundreds, and now thousands, of U.S. troops to Iraq to combat the Islamic State, the president’s message remains largely the same: the long war there is over, and he will not be launching a new one.

“Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group,” Obama said Tuesday night.

The statement is emblematic of a president who wants to maintain some distance from what’s going on in Iraq and Syria. There is clearly a ground war raging in both countries, but the president’s view is that by sticking to airstrikes and keeping U.S. troops solely in a training mission, rather than a combat one, the U.S. can avoid getting ensnared in a potentially long and bloody ground war.

At the very beginning of his speech, Obama said that nearly 180,000 troops served in Iraq and Afghanistan six years ago but stressed that only 15,000 remain in the two countries. By emphasizing the steady decline of U.S. troops in the region, Obama also concealed the fact that in Iraq, the number of U.S. troops has steadily increased over the last year.

Meanwhile, there are lawmakers in both parties that believe Obama’s decision to withdraw all American troops from Iraq in 2011 allowed the rise of the Islamic State. And as U.S. troops continue to leave Afghanistan, some in the military are considering whether more troops need to stay in the country longer to ensure security.

In his speech, the president acknowledged that the effort to destroy the Islamic State would take time, although he didn’t specify exactly how long it could take.

But to show the world the United States was “united in this mission,” Obama said he would ask Congress to pass a resolution to authorize the use of force against the group. To date, the White House has said that it had the legal authority to take military action in Iraq thanks to legislation ​that was passed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. But critics, including powerful Democratic senators like Tim Kaine of Virginia, have argued that new authorization is needed in order to cover what is a very different mission than what was originally conceived.

Following the speech, Kaine said he was pleased Obama addressed the need for new legal authority, but that he was disappointed the president didn’t signal that he would be sending draft legislation to Congress for consideration.

“I hope that guidance is forthcoming soon,” Kaine said in a statement Tuesday night. “Five months of war has been far too long to make our servicemembers and their families wait for a political consensus on the scope of the U.S. mission.”

The Obama administration was slow to respond to the Islamic State’s advances, ignoring entreaties from Baghdad and not launching airstrikes until August, by which point the group had already taken sizable portions of Iraq and Syria. U.S. and coalition aircraft have carried out 1,821 strikes, but U.S. and Iraqi officials say that truly beating back the group will require American troops on the ground to retrain the battered Iraqi security forces to help take back and hold territory. That presents a thorny question for Obama, who has consistently insisted that no U.S. combat troops would return to Iraq even as the number of American forces there has ticked steadily higher.

U.S. troops began trickling into Iraq in June when 300 were sent on a fact-finding mission to assess the state of the Iraqi security forces and the strength of the Islamic State. Since then, the number of U.S. troops has steadily climbed. Today, according to the Defense Department’s latest estimate, 2,338 troops are deployed there: 1,538 on a mission to support Iraqi security forces, while roughly 800 protect U.S. personnel and facilities. Since airstrikes began on Aug. 8, the cost of military operations against the Islamic State has reached $1.2 billion, with a daily average cost of $8.2 million, according to the Pentagon.

Although the mission has grown increasingly ambitious over the last several months, it still pales in comparison with the size of the U.S. military presence in Iraq in 2007, when 158,000 troops were on the ground. It is also relatively small when compared with the mission in Afghanistan, where roughly 10,600 U.S. troops are still deployed out of a force that once numbered 101,000.

Still, the return of U.S. troops to Iraq is not something the Obama administration ever wanted to see happen. In last year’s State of the Union address, Obama told Americans, “When I took office, nearly 180,000 Americans were serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, all our troops are out of Iraq.” Just one year later that’s no longer true.

Obama also said last year, “America must move off a permanent war footing.” But with U.S. troops now returning to the very bases they left just three years ago, and senior defense officials saying it’s going to take years before the Islamic State is rolled back in either Iraq or Syria, a permanent war footing seems to be exactly where the United States is headed.

But that wasn’t Obama’s message in this year’s State of the Union.

“He’s going to water down any call to arms,” James Jeffrey, Obama’s ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 and now a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said before the speech.

Examining past State of the Union speeches reveals how important the removal of U.S. troops from Iraq was to the president and his original foreign-policy goals. In his 2012 speech, Obama began his remarks by highlighting a trip he had made to Andrews Air Force Base, where he welcomed home “some of our last troops to serve in Iraq.”

“For the first time in nine years, there are no Americans fighting in Iraq,” Obama proudly said at the time.

The return home of U.S. troops from Iraq was just part of the president’s overall message that the United States was safer.

“Ending the Iraq War has allowed us to strike decisive blows against our enemies. From Pakistan to Yemen, the al Qaeda operatives who remain are scrambling, knowing that they can’t escape the reach of the United States of America,” he said.

In 2013, the president didn’t even mention Iraq, an indication of the White House’s trying to turn the page on a war it promised to end. This year he’ll have no choice but to address it again — even if he tries to minimize the scale, and dangers, of the growing U.S. presence in Iraq, where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to describe the U.S. troops deployed there as noncombat troops. At Al Asad air base, U.S. troops are under regular, but “completely ineffective,” mortar and rocket fire from Islamic State fighters, according to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, Canadian special forces who are on a similar training mission exchanged fire with Islamic State fighters last week.

Jeffrey noted that Obama prefers to liken the fight against the Islamic State to the counterterrorism assistance the United States has provided in the southern Philippines, where local armed forces take the lead and there is little risk of U.S. casualties. In September, Obama used a different analogy and said U.S. counterterrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia provided a model for the strategy being used in Iraq. That struck many observers as a strange comparison to draw given the continuing violence and unrest in both countries. On Tuesday, Shiite insurgents in Yemen overran the country’s presidential palace. The country’s information minister told CNN that the conquest marked “the completion of a coup” and that the country’s “president has no control.”

Jeffrey said he’d like to see the president have a hard, honest talk with the American people about what it’s going to take to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. It won’t require hundreds of thousands of troops or more than a trillion dollars, which the United States poured into the last war in Iraq, but it will require a serious commitment and a willingness to take risks, Jeffrey said.

“Foreign policy is not something we can put on the backburner,” he said. “This is a major goddamn threat to the global order.”

​Getty Images News

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

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