President Obama announced on Thursday that he plans to send some military advisers to Iraq in the face of the crisis that has engulfed the country, but did not call for Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki to step down or announce immediate military action in Iraq.
Obama, speaking from the White House Briefing Room, told reporters that he had ordered an increase in intelligence assets in Iraq and the region and provided more support in that regard to the Iraqi security forces. The president also announced the formation of joint operations centers in Baghdad and Northern Iraq to coordinate Iraq’s counter-assault against militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — which last week took control of several major cities in Iraq. As earlier predicted, Obama also said that he would be sending a small number of military advisers — up to 300 — to decide how to train Iraq’s underperformng security force going forward.
These advisers will be embedded at Iraqi headquarters among higher level leaders, and possibly at the battalion level, a senior administration official clarified after Obama’s speech. “We’re going to start small and see what we learn from that,” the official said of the advisers’ mission, which will for now mainly consist of learning just how dire the situation within Iraq’s military is. “They’ll help us learn more, then they’ll help the Iraqis improve their competency in the field.”
But Obama repeated several times that this would not lead to mission creep in Iraq. “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq, but we’ll help Iraqis as they fight the terrorist who threaten the Iraqi people and regional and American interests as well,” he said. “We do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in tens of thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has been expended in Iraq,” he added. “Ultimately this would have to be solved by the Iraqis.”
And though the U.S. has positioned military assets in the region, Obama did not indicate that he will be providing a green light for airstrikes anytime soon. Instead, Obama said, the United States is “developing more information about potential targets and going forward we’ll take targeted and precise military action if and when we determine that the situation on the ground requires it. If we do, I will consult with Congress and leaders in Iraq and in the region.”
Obama also did not call for Maliki to step down, despite reports that the United States is quietly meeting with others who might be able to take over the job, and the urging of members of Congress. But the president did stress the need for political reforms and “only those with an inclusive agenda” should have a future in Iraq. “It is not our job to choose Iraq’s leaders,” Obama said, noting that the U.S. will not take military action in favor of one sect over another. “There is no military solution to Iraq, certainly not one led by the United States,” he continued.
Obama noted that Iraq’s neighbors “have a vital interest in making sure Iraq doesn’t descend in civil war or a safe haven for terrorists.” While taking questions, Obama elaborated that if Iran “is coming in as an armed force on behalf of the Shia and if it is framed in that fashion, then that probably worsens the situation.” Though not directly addressing whether the U.S. will work with Iran moving forward, he warned that if Iran’s view “of the region is solely through sectarian frames, they could find themselves fighting in a whole lot of places and that’s not good for the Iranian economy or the Iranian people over the long-term either.”
Secretary of State John Kerry will be heading to the Middle East and Europe this weekend, Obama also said. Kerry’s diplomacy will be necessary given the regional divide, where Iraq threatens to become the latest battlefield in a regional cold war between Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-majority Gulf states and Shiite-majority Iran. In the clearest example of the split, Al-Malaki’s cabinet — which is Shiite-dominated — has accused Saudi Arabia and other Sunni government of supporting ISIS, a charge the Saudis have denied. But the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United Kingdom recently warned the United States and Britain against getting involved in the crisis.
The president’s statements came after the end of a meeting involving all the major players in his national security team, including Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and CIA Director John Brennan. The administration has for the last week has struggled with how to respond to the situation unfolding in Iraq, which the last U.S. soldier left less than three years ago. Earlier this week, the White House informed Congress that up to 275 troops were being deployed to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to help protect the compound.
But Democratic leaders in Congress are split about reinserting the U.S. into what is increasingly looking like a protracted struggle in Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) earlier this week said that Obama has the “authority to do what they need to do” in Iraq and did not push back on the administration’s insistence that they will not need Congressional authority to act in Iraq. On the other hand, House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi before Obama spoke was wary about inserting special forces into the situation. “Generally speaking, and I’ll be intersted to hear what the pres has to say, I think that you have to be careful sending special forces, because it’s a number that has a tendency to grow,” she said. “So I’d like to see the context, purpose, timeline and all the rest for something like that.”
“Recent days have reminded us of the deep scars left by America’s war in Iraq,” Obama noted. The debate over how to respond to the current crisis has certainly seen that, as the architects of the war have reemerged to advocate reinserting the U.S. into Iraq. A recent poll, however, indicated that the American people have little stomach for the policies being advocated among conservatives. When asked whether they believed combat troops should return to Iraq, 74 percent opposed the idea and only 16 percent supported.