08/11/2014 12:20 pm ET Updated Oct 11, 2014

Back Into Iraq


President Obama's approval of airstrikes against the Islamic State and the first limited action around Irbil trail question marks. They pertain to aims, military effectiveness, and political consequences for dealings with all parties with a stake in the conflict.

Purpose. The first thing to say is that we should not confuse purpose with justification. Thursday night, Obama explicitly stated that protection of Americans in Irbil (and implicitly Kurdistan) was the reason for acting against advancing IS forces. This is not entirely convincing; evacuation could be a logical alternative. Obviously, there are other aims, inter alia in the immediate, securing access to the air and support facilities we have established at the airport that are crucial to any future operations -- including supplying the Peshmerga, e.g. keeping open your military options; to shore up Kurdish morale; to send a message to IS and its allies that any future campaigns in that direction that they contemplate would not be a cakewalk. The President said none of this due to his anxieties about making implicit commitments that he is not sure that he could meet. That is to say, if he underscored the strategic importance of protecting Kurdistan from the IS, the question immediately arises as to whether that interest might require ground forces -- a step that he has explicitly ruled out. Similarly, he did not link air strikes to the humanitarian aid for the displaced thousands around Sanjar. Again, if that is an important stake, what are the appropriate means?

Methods. Why pinprick strikes? Apparently we struck only a handful of targets: a mortar employment, one artillery battery and a small truck convoy. Spokesmen have stressed that airstrikes would be severely limited. Why? Air support of that magnitude directly affects nothing on the ground. Is it a signal to the IS and, if so, what is it? If meant as a general warning, this minimalism has two drawbacks: It could leave the impression that the United States is hesitant to use force on a significant scale; therefore, the threat might be devalued and the deterrent effect weakened. In addition, the psychological effect of airstrikes against irregular forces unaccustomed to fight under aerial assault is vitiated. In this situation, "shock and awe" might actually have some effect. When the Taliban came under air assault in the Panjshir Valley in 2001, they very quickly broke. Would the IS shock troops break? No one knows but it may be worth a test.

The situational logic strongly suggests that braking the IS's momentum, and then containing or reversing it, should be a priority. For the "Caliphate" to ensconce itself as a feature of the geopolitical environment would aggravate every other problem in the region with which Washington is grappling. Hence, if checking it is a major American security interest, then at some point degrading their military capabilities becomes an objective. Just how this might be done, by whom, remains an open question. Obama has stated that the United States will not become the Iraqi government's air force. Such an unequivocal declaration, though, presupposes that there is a functional substitute -- and one that will be available in time to deal with military threats of the first order that could emerge literally any day. So, this is a typical Obama fudge. Here is a line of division among his advisers between those pressing him to act (on humanitarian grounds and/or to thwart a new jihadi/terrorist threat) and those urging caution about getting entangled in another war (with "legacy" and all that in the balance). Probably. Michele and Valerie Jarrett are in the latter camp.

Barack Obama is a temporizer, a devotee of half-measures, "too clever by half" as with his time-table limited mini-surge in Afghanistan in 2009. Any number of calculations, most deriving from domestic political/pundit considerations, could have figured in what he did -- and will do so in future decisions. He too often deceives himself that verbal declarations ("Assad must go") or pat phrases ("Iraqi air force...") constitute a policy or program. Although the preferred course of action is far from clear, evasion of the tough issues and postponement of hard choices will lower the odds on coming up with wise decisions once they have to be taken.

Is military support still predicated on the eviction of al-Maliki and political reconstruction in Baghdad? Apparently not. However, that does not preclude the possibility of Obama trying to ration tangible military support so as to maintain pressure on al-Maliki. Indeed, his reiteration on Friday and Saturday that resolution of the political stalemate in Baghdad is a precondition for devising a l strategy to deal with the IS menace underscored that the two are still intimately bound together. In the long-run, that of course in true. But fine-tuning speaks more of a parlor game than the harsh realities of what is happening in Iraq. The next IS thrust will be at a time of their choosing that bears no necessary connection to political maneuverings among its opponents. Indeed, the IS leadership does seem alert to what is taking shape on the other side and ready to forestall those moves. As FB Ali points out, the IS focus on Irbil came within days of meetings there where U.S. Special Forces and CIA sought to lay the groundwork for revival of the Sawah Awakening movement among Sunni tribes that had suppressed al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia in 2006-2008. Today's situation is more challenging insofar as most tribes have weighed the merits and demerits of joining the IS led coalition against the Maliki government over the past year and made their decisions on an individual basis. Some remain on the fence and some, doubtless, prevaricate. It also is impossible to estimate how much the American provision of good offices and underwriting counts in light of past experience. Nonetheless, preemptive action by the IS to disrupt the situation made sense for them.

What are Obama's time-frames? They seem to be confused. There is a military emergency right now re. Kurdistan. There may also be one associated with the Mosul and Haditha dams. There is the short-term crisis associated with a gradually mounting threat to Baghdad and surroundings. There is the short-medium term crisis of Iraq's political unity (or fragmentation) and the implications elsewhere in the region. It is not apparent how the decision on limited airstrikes affects policy options on these matters. Certainly, there are no signs of a general
strategy emerging in Washington.

What role (explicit, tacit, or pantomime) for other outside powers, e.g. Iran, Turkey, Syria and Egypt? The permutations are numerous. On this question, too, we have no signs of the Obama administration's overall thinking -- much less the outlines of a strategy. The addiction to the piece-meal, the incremental, the short-term and the segmental still retains its grip. This is a major liability and potentially highly dangerous. What is intellectually and politically convenient does not conform to actual physical and political realities. The same holds for the pace of developments.

It is fashionable these days to write reflective pieces comparing 1914 and 2014. These contrived exercises are not very instructive or illuminating. There is one lesson that might be relevant to today's Middle East situation. The sheer complexity of the diplomatic maneuvers among the eight powers involved, each operating in a charged domestic environment, exceeded the diplomatic grasp of policy-makers. War was not inevitable as a result, but whatever outcome emerged from the maelstrom was not the conclusion of a controlled linear process. The measure of control exercised by the relevant parties today is less than it was in 1914. Moreover, some don't even talk to each other. And some, like IS, are cyphers. The possibilities for miscalculations of all kinds, and unintended consequences are enormous -- even if the stakes are much lower (for the US and other great powers). As one example, the Saudis, and other Sunni states, may be so tempted at the prospect of IS weakening its Shi'ite foes in Baghdad and Teheran that it underestimates the threat to itself. Others, like Turkey, may be tempted to play their own parochial games. That is one reason why the United States should set a primary objective forthright warnings about the fatal consequences of sectarian mindsets and do what it can to encourage an alternative logic.

Fortune favors those who know consciously what they are trying to do and why.