Only the NY Times editorial board knows the White House’s Iraq strategy
posted at 10:01 am on June 18, 2014 by Noah Rothman
If you subscribe to The Wall Street Journal, you awoke on Wednesday to the news that the White House has decided against further military involvement in Iraq and will not engage in airstrikes against ISIS militants. Instead, the Journal reports, the administration will prepare a comprehensive approach to the crisis in Iraq which includes creating a network of support from regional allies and providing Nouri al-Maliki’s government with intelligence.
The president wants to avoid airstrikes for now in part because U.S. military officials lack sufficient information to hit targets that would shift momentum on the battlefield. Officials say their approach also would help address underlying causes of the Sunni uprising and the collapse of Iraq’s military forces.
While strikes are, apparently “still actively under discussion,” the Journal definitively reported that the military option is off the table for the foreseeable future.
If, however, you don’t subscribe to the Journal and prefer to read The New York Times, you learned this morning that airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq are imminent.
“President Obama is considering a targeted, highly selective campaign of airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq similar to counterterrorism operations in Yemen, rather than the widespread bombardment of an air war, a senior administration officials said on Tuesday,” the Times reported.
Such a campaign, most likely using drones, could last for a prolonged period, the official said. But it is not likely to begin for days or longer, and would hinge on the United States’ gathering adequate intelligence about the location of the militants, who are intermingled with the civilian population in Mosul, Tikrit and other cities north of Baghdad.
“Given all the hurdles to effective military action, Mr. Obama is continuing to emphasize a political solution to the crisis, the official said,” the report continued.
Confused? Well, you’re in good company. Even the normally self-assured and well-connected foreign affairs reporter Christiane Amanpour has no idea what the administration is thinking on Iraq. In fact, she suggested that the conflicting signals she is receiving indicate to her that the White House has been virtually paralyzed.
“I don’t think anybody’s made a decision in the White House,” Amanpour said of the early rumors that the administration may work with Iran to secure Iraq. “I’m beginning to get a reading that they may just let it go.”
“We are now more than a week into this relentless march by ISIS,” she cautioned. “They are practically banging on Baghdad’s door, and this is an incredibly, you know, terrifying prospect, frankly to all of us in this post- 9/11 world to see al-Qaeda or an offshoot get this amount of territory – territory! — in a sovereign country.”
Fortunately for the White House, there remains one group for whom they can still do no wrong, even if they’re doing nothing. “President Obama has, so far, struck the right note on Iraq,” The New York Times editorial board crowed on Tuesday.
“His opening to Iran has been the most controversial and potentially the most important move,” the editorial continued strangely. “The two counties cooperated on Afghanistan in 2001 against the Taliban, and, in theory, they should be able to find common ground in stabilizing Iraq.”
The White House has publicly ruled out cooperating with the Iranian government in the effort to secure Iraqi territory. While American and Iranian officials met “on the sidelines” of nuclear negotiations in Vienna on the Iraq issue, neither side is suggesting anything concrete was been achieved with that tête-à-tête.
“The disastrous situation in Iraq was discussed today,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters on Tuesday. “No specific outcome was achieved.”
The editorial goes on to paint a picture of a region exploding. The Times advised Turkey, which recently reversed course by signaling its interest in an independent Kurdistan, to “shut its border” to Syria and Iraq in order to stop the flow of militants and material to ISIS. The Times further requested that Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states end their financial support for the rampaging Sunni militant group.
These are the outlines of a volatile multipolarity arising in the already unstable Middle East which would be characterized by ethno-religious blocs of states vying for regional hegemony – a condition facilitated by America’s retreat and the vacuum it left behind.
While the Times closes by giving their consent to airstrikes in Iraq, so long as the president makes that case to both the American public, the editorial ends on an bizarre note.
After asserting that the Iraqi military has virtually melted away in the face of the ISIS threat, and that it is a “risky bet” for the U.S. to rely on these forces for much of anything, the editorial noted that more intractable problem in the region is not ISIS but rising sectarian violence.
They observed that the Sunni militants who have been slaughtering Shiites in the territories they capture are inviting Shiite reprisals which have already begun. In Baquba, a town 40 miles to the north of Baghdad, the Shiite-led government summarily executed 44 Sunni prisoners on Tuesday.
It was an ominous conclusion to the editorial. It reflected how the premise, a glowing praise of the president’s approach to Iraq, was steadily contradicted throughout the body of the piece. It was as though the editorial, much like the administration it set out to defend, simply ran out of steam.