WASHINGTON – What I read in President Obama’s choice of words and demeanor in announcing this new US military engagement in Iraq is that he is doing this reluctantly and perhaps against his better judgement.
I do not want to do this
Whatever the President said, this is how I read it:
“Hey, I thought we were done with Iraq, that terrible place. I thought that the government in Baghdad, bad as it is, was more or less in charge, and that they would be able to handle their own security. Our troops are gone, as I promised. Now you are telling me that we have to go back? I do not want to go back into Iraq.”
“Are you telling me that there is no way out of this mess? OK, if we really have to go back, let me make it clear that we will do only what seems indispensable. And, mark my words, no more US boots on the ground. We shall do as little as possible, and get out of there as soon as we can”.
This is how I read the President, and his palpable reluctance sends a terrible signal to both friends and enemies.
Use of force only if there is a clear intention to win
Of course, any time a President authorizes the use of force he has to consider the risks involved. But this is done privately, in debates with his national security team. Once the decision to take action has been made, the President must look and sound totally convinced of what he just ordered.
And, more than anything else, the President must convey to the world that America gets into a fight with the clear intention of winning, whatever it takes. This is not about showing the flag, or about token actions in order to placate domestic critics who argue for intervention.
Destroy the Caliphate
Whatever the specific circumstances of any use of force, the purpose has to be the achievement of a clear political goal. In this case, America’s goal has to be the destruction of this brand new, frankly grotesque, Islamic Caliphate. This de facto new state, now encompassing Eastern Syria and Northern Iraq, is an abomination that belongs to a preposterous Hollywood plot. But unfortunately it is quite real. It has already had a tragic impact on the lives of the poor Iraqis now subjected to deranged rulers whose barbaric models are in the Middle Ages.
I really hope to be wrong. But the way Obama handled this new chapter in Iraq’s ongoing crisis is really pitiful. ISIL came along as a remarkably strong and disruptive military force at the beginning of the year. It was clearly a major threat to Iraq. Washington’s reaction? Well, as ISIL easily took over most of Northern Iraq, the USA did absolutely nothing to push them back.
Words, but no action
At the time, Washington argued in public that ISIL’s conquest of the Sunni areas of Iraq was all about divisive Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. He is a sectarian Shiite who has purposely alienated the Sunni minority. Time for the smart Iraqis to pick a better, more inclusive leader.
This analysis is correct, in principle. But assigning blame is not a policy when a large chunk of Iraq has been taken over by Islamic terrorists.
Finally, there is engagement
After that, months went by without a hint of any US action. We had to wait for the situation on the ground to get much worse, with additional gains for ISIL, now threatening the Kurds in the North East of Iraq.
In other words, with his inaction President Obama allowed a bad situation to become really terrible. Only now, when things are looking desperate, he decided to do something.
And, so far, the impression is that he is doing this reluctantly, without any conviction; and stressing that, whatever America will be doing in Iraq, this is not a military re-engagement in a war that technically ended years ago.
Is this leadership?
Leadership is about timely, effective action; but it is also about the ability to communicate real conviction. This action in Iraq announced by President Obama is not timely, and so far it lacks conviction.
As to its effectiveness, I pray that sustained US air strikes will be able at least to degrade the forces of this ISIL Caliphate-monstrosity. This new Islamic quasi-state is a calamity for Iraq, for the Middle East and for the world. It should be destroyed. And the sooner, the better.