Friday, June 27, 2014

Obama’s tough decisions in Iraq

Awkward: Kerry and al-Maliki in Baghdad
About 300 U.S. Special Forces soldiers began arriving in Iraq this week to gather intelligence and serve as “military advisers” to the country’s faltering army, as the Obama administration decides whether to use airstrikes against a rampaging Islamic insurgency. Rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group advanced to within 20 miles of Baghdad, and there was fierce fighting between the estimated 10,000 insurgents and government forces in several cities. President Obama pledged “to take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine the situation on the ground requires it,” but he and Secretary of State John Kerry reiterated that any help was conditional on Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki giving minority Sunnis and Kurds a greater role in governing the country. Al-Maliki, whose party won a plurality of seats in the parliamentary election in April, pushed back against calls for the formation of an emergency government comprising all ethnic and religious groups, saying that would represent a “coup against the constitution.”

The Sunni insurgents, who want to establish a fundamentalist Islamic caliphate stretching across Iraq and Syria, continued making significant territorial gains in provinces to the north and west of Baghdad, and took complete control of the Iraq-Syria border. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sent warplanes to bomb western Iraq for the first time, targeting strongholds of ISIS fighters who are also fighting his regime. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani warned that the breakup of the country along sectarian lines was all but inevitable. The insurgency, he said, had created “a new reality and a new Iraq.”

What the editorials said

“It’s frustrating to watch territory hard won by U.S. troops fall to extremists,” said Newsday. But we have to accept that “determining Iraq’s future is no longer our problem.” It was not just Obama, but the American people who wanted out of Iraq, and our only concern now should be stopping ISIS from forming a safe haven for terrorists. But for any hope of long-term stability, al-Maliki has to go, said TheGuardian.com. The prime minister now sees himself as “an embattled commander in chief,” spending most of his time poring over military maps and planning counterattacks. “He is not listening to America,” the Sunnis, or even other Shiite leaders. He just wants to crush the insurgents and retain power.

Ousting al-Maliki isn’t the magic answer to Iraq’s problems, said The Wall Street Journal. Good luck finding a suitable replacement—someone “popular with Shiites, acceptable to Sunnis and Kurds, reasonable toward Americans, and effective in the fight against terrorists.” President Obama’s “public maneuvering” against al-Maliki is simply drawing the authoritarian leader closer to his Shiite base, and “into the waiting arms of Iran.”

What the columnists said

“There are no good options in Iraq right now,” said Max Boot in the Los Angeles Times. Airstrikes, cruise missiles, and drone attacks are only effective when you have enough “eyes on the ground” to precisely target the strikes and a competent army to follow up. Allowing Iraq to divide into three ethnic regions, on the other hand, would essentially result in two terrorist states: a Tehran-backed Shiite region and an ISIS-controlled Sunni area. So the least worst option is for Obama to prevent al-Maliki from having a third term in office, by personally pressing Sunni and Shiite leaders to “find a more inclusive figure.”

It’s naïve to think the U.S. can force al-Maliki out, said Fanar Haddad in WashingtonPost.com. He “commands considerable popularity” among the Shiites, and they’re clinging to him more tightly because of the “existential fears” created by the advance of ISIS militants and armed Sunni sympathizers. Sunnis, meanwhile, are so embittered they will reject any Shiite prime minister.

That leaves Obama with “a difficult conundrum,” said Meghan L. O’Sullivan in Politico.com. He can take his usual cautious, incremental approach, and keep pressing for a political solution. But in the meantime, ISIS can consolidate its territorial gains. Or Obama can launch airstrikes now, push ISIS back—and lose his leverage over al-Maliki. Either way, Iraq may be headed for a breakup.
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