OBAMA ON IRAQ How to avoid mission creep
By M K Bhadrakumar
The best part of the US President Barack Obama's update regarding developments in Iraq has been his promise that he will be vigilant about 'mission creep' and "American troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again."
Cynics may say this is how all 'mission creeps' in history began, but on Thursday Obama robustly defended his optimism:
We [US] do not have the ability to simply solve this problem by sending in thousands of troops and committing the kinds of blood and treasure that has already been expended in Iraq.
That sounds plausible. Obama was right; this is essentially Iraq's war, not America's, to fight. But then, conditions apply.
The then US President John Kennedy also had said in 1963:
In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones who have to win or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it - the people of Vietnam.
Obama's remarks about Iraq situation eerily echoed Kennedy's.
Arguably, the circumstances are different today. The Cold War setting no more exists and the US has looked down the Iraqi inferno once already and the searing memory still lingers - just 30 months have lapsed since American troops returned home; the nature of the enemy is completely different today; it is a trans-national war; and, of course, Iraq is hurtling toward fragmentation and the state appears to be in a meltdown.
Obama repeatedly said that a political solution is needed in Iraq. The key word in his remarks was "consensus" - consensus within Iraq involving all sections of society.
But the paradox is that a consensus within Iraq is inextricably linked to consensus regionally, and, in turn, its underpinning if to found in a consensus internationally among the big powers.
However, this is also where Obama's speech remains flawed, since he was forthcoming only on the imperative to forge a consensus among the Iraqi Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds to stand up and be counted in the momentous struggle to preserve their country's unity and its fledgling democracy.
Of course, Obama was right in stressing that such a consensus demands enlightened leadership in Baghdad, which in an accommodative spirit respects the aspirations of all sections of society - in short, an inclusive Iraqi power structure.
On the other hand, Obama was taciturn about the regional consensus - although holding out a tantalizing offer to work with Iran - and he had nothing to say about influential world powers, especially Russia and China.
Obama sidestepped the imperative need to forge a consensus with other big powers such as Russia and China regarding the stabilization of Iraq, and yet, these are the US's 'natural allies' when it comes to battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which is a terrorist movement more abhorrent than al-Qaeda.
Indeed, these two potential allies not only have amassed considerable political capital in the Middle East, which will be helpful in mobilizing a regional consensus regarding Iraq, but they are also the right partners needed today for the US to bring the United Nations into the picture.
On parallel tracks
This needs some explaining. While it is perfectly in accordance with the international law that Obama is dealing directly, bilaterally with the legitimate and democratically elected government in Baghdad led by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, the fact remains that the ISIL embodies a global problem and it can be dealt with more effectively with the imprimatur of the UN, which carries the kind of moral authority that the US lacks in Iraq after having ravaged that country through the past decade.
Obama, who is passionately devoted to multilateralism in solving regional conflicts, is not yet thinking on these lines with regard to Iraq.
Again, ISIL is a Syrian problem as well and any effort to vanquish this abominable creature from the region remains impractical unless it is fought with equal tenacity in Syria too. But the plain truth is that the US lacks the wherewithal to do it alone.
A regional consensus in dealing with the ISIL menace is difficult to reach, given the acute contradictions in the Middle East's politics. Here too an international effort is overdue. The US, Russia and China can play an effective role together or on parallel tracks to nudge Tehran and Riyadh toward a reconciliation that is an irreducible minimum needed to stabilize the situation in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The good part is that there are signs that whatever might have been the ISIL's mentorship in Syria in the past by some Arab states and Turkey, these countries today also seem to be feeling uneasy whether some day they too might have to face a blowback.
Obama is right in judging that ultimately the crisis boils down to a failure of leadership in Baghdad and the lack of a political consensus in that country. No doubt, the solution has to be found through an inclusive power structure that accommodates the aspirations of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.
But this prerequisite of the situation is also best achieved through a broader international participation in fostering it.
Warding off mission creep
In retrospect, the US had put its energy and resources in a futile policy of delegitimizing Iran's role in regional politics. What is needed today is a paradigm shift in the US' regional policies.
The recent US-Iranian engagement offers the Obama administration a window of opportunity to bring in new thinking. Obama's remarks on Thursday show nascent signs of new thinking and Tehran would have taken note of it.
However, the danger lies somewhere else. In the absence of a "big picture" of forging an international consensus over the Iraq crisis, Obama might end up tinkering with the ISIL challenge and unwittingly get into the 'mission creep' he seeks to avoid.
The House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi has a point in warning that numbers have "a tendency to grow". Obama's insistence that the 300 "military advisers" being dispatched to Iraq will avoid combat could easily get broken.
Obama's aides say the military advisers will be "special operators", that is, code for Special Operations Forces. Obama also took pains to clarify that the advisers will not see fighting. But then, "combat" is an elastic term when it comes to the special operations folks.
The Iraq war veterans in America already warn that once the US special operations forces get embedded with their Iraqi counterparts, all bets are off, especially in the current extremely dangerous security environment.
Indeed, Obama lacks the passionate enthusiasm or, perhaps, the will of his predecessor in the White House to fix the Iraq question. But, having said all that, the danger is still there that the scope of the Iraq mission may expand out of control.
Obama is on a slippery slope with critics at home incessantly demanding "more" from him on Iraq. Alas, ISIL is not going to wither away and Iraq problem is going to weigh down the Obama presidency. It may already have become an adjunct to the US domestic politics as the prospective presidential candidates for the 2016 election begin to do grandstanding.
This is also where a multilateral approach built on a international and regional consensus becomes a useful 'breaking mechanism' that can actually help Obama ward off the mission creep.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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