President Barack Obama faces a menu of difficult alternatives as his administration struggles to save Iraq’s government from a virulent Sunni insurgency, according to analysts and lawmakers.
Not only are large formations of the U.S.-trained Iraqi Army disintegrating under the onslaught of the Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Congress and the American voters appear to have little appetite for backing the type of aggressive U.S. military action that might prevent Iraq from splintering into two or three separate entities.
Obama, who withdrew the last U.S. combat forces from Iraq in 2011, ruled out Friday “sending U.S. troops back into combat.” But Obama made clear that unless the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki adopts a major reconciliation effort with Sunnis and Kurds, no U.S. military action will be successful.
“Before we have a knee-jerk decision to support the Iraqi government against terrorists, we need to demand it be a government worth supporting,” said retired Lt. Colonel Peter Mansoor, a professor of military science at Ohio State University and who served in 2007 and 2008 as the executive officer in Iraq to General David Petraeus.
“We should make it clear if the Iraqi government wants U.S. military assistance, it needs to be a government of a national unity, stop the persecution of Maliki’s political enemies and form a government all Iraqis can support — and that may mean Maliki will no longer be the prime minister,” said Mansoor, author of the book, “Surge – My Journey with General David Petraeus and the Re-Making of the Iraq War.”
Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the defense think-tank Lexington Institute in Washington, said “the basic problem in Iraq can’t be solved by U.S. air power and not even by boots on the ground. There is a divide in Iraq between the Sunnis in the North and the Shiaa in the south and the bottom line probably is this place probably shouldn’t be a country. It should be two countries.”
But if the United States fails to back the Iraqi government, large swaths of northern Iraq and Syria will fall under the control the ISIS, a fundamentalist group whose violence is unmatched in the Middle East. Analysts fear that areas dominated by the ISIS would literally become training havens for terrorists, who might launch attacks in Europe and perhaps the United States.
“I hate to see us do nothing,” said Richard Herrmann, a professor of political science at Ohio State and a State Department official under former President George H.W. Bush. “We don’t have a lot of options. I don’t think the president and others could mobilize enough domestic support to send in forces.”
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Cincinnati, a surgeon at Abu Ghraib prison from 2005 to 2006, said ISIS is “so violent, so horrible even al-Qaida keeps their distance from them.”
Even among Republican critics of Obama there seemed little interest in dispatching U.S. forces to Iraq. Columbus-area Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, said “we should give them some air cover as they fight a force that could really destabilize the country and more importantly destabilize the worldwide energy markets.”
House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., said “it’s long past time for the president to lay out a plan for how we can reverse the momentum and spread of terrorism in Iraq,” but did not say what plan he might support.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Americans cannot “afford to turn our backs on this problem, and I do not think it is wise to be taking options off the table at this point.” But he assailed the Obama administration for failing to adopt a strategy to save Iraq and the Middle East.
“Saying you ‘ended the Iraq war’ or the White House’s latest, ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ are not strategies,” Portman said.
Democrats appeared no more eager for a new fight in Iraq. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who as a House member in 2002 voted against using force in Iraq, said that “instead of committing American troops, we should work with the international community – and the Iraqi government – to help it resolve this situation.”