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The President's Speech
Obama: No Solution to Iraq Without Political Compromise

President Obama made his first remarks today about the crisis unfolding in Iraq. From a transcript in the Washington Post:

This is not solely, or even primarily, a military challenge. Over the past decade, American troops have made extraordinary sacrifices to give Iraqis and opportunity to claim their own future. Unfortunately, Iraqi leaders have been unable to overcome, too often, the mistrust and sectarian differences that have long been simmering there. And that’s created vulnerabilities within the Iraqi government, as well as their security forces.

So any action that we make take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, to promote stability and account for the legitimate interests of all of Iraq’s communities, and to continue to build the capacity of an effective security force. We can’t do it for them. And in the absence of this type of political effort, short-term military action — including any assistance we might provide — won’t succeed.

A major thrust of the speech is a political ultimatum to Maliki and his government: we will only help you if you get serious about an inclusive government and system in Iraq that offers real accommodation for the Sunnis.

This means Maliki has a choice. Iran is willing to bolster his government without any requiring any concessions to the Sunnis, having already dispatched two Revolutionary Guard units to protect Baghdad and the Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf. So for Maliki, do the advantages of American help offset the concessions he would have to make? If in his estimation they do, he’ll respond positively to Obama and the U.S. will get more deeply engaged in the contest. If not, he will turn to Iran and Iran’s involvement in Iraq will grow exponentially—and in effect the entire war in Syria and Iraq will turn into a war of Iranian expansion.

There is a downside for Maliki in that; the more power Iran gains in Iraq the less secure his own hold will be. But he may be less dependent on American help than Washington hopes; we shall see.

President Obama is overstating the case when he says that this is not primarily a military issue. While it is true that the political collapse of the government’s support among Sunnis reflects the failure of Maliki to develop a politically effective program of outreach and inclusion, that would matter much less if the Iraqi armed forces weren’t falling apart before what remains, in purely military terms, a small force. While the solutions to Iraq’s problems will require political change, in a policy-relevant time frame the big question is what the military outcome will be. If ISIL (which, after the President’s speech, is how we will refer to what used to be known as ISIS) consolidates its hold on the Sunni areas of Iraq, it won’t matter much what reforms Maliki proposes.

And in any case, the most troubling weakness is that the predominantly Shia army is throwing down its guns and fleeing in panic. That is not about Sunni-Shia politics. That is about the internal failure of the government to consolidate a strong military based on its core supporters. Again, the root causes of this may be political, but Maliki must stop losing the war before he can worry about how to win it or how to consolidate peace when it’s done.

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  • rheddles

    The Army wouldn’t be falling apart if Maliki hadn’t purged the officer corps the Americans left behind and replaced it with political hacks. We made a mistake disbanding the original army and we made a mistake leaving after we had rebuilt one. But going back in would be a mistake. Let them settle it themselves. And if that means the birth of Kurdistan, all the better.

    • charlesrwilliams

      You are absolutely right. There is nothing we can do to mitigate this disaster. It was necessary to depose Saddam Hussain but it was not necessary to stay. Having stayed it was foolish to leave.

  • Andrew Allison

    Our Commander-in-Chief is apparently unaware that the Sunni and Shia sects have been at each other’s throats for 1400 years and that, as in Syria (Alawites are a Shia offshoot), the Shia minority governing Iraq is not about to give up power peacefully. Unfortunately, Iran is one of only two Shia majority countries (the other being Bahrain), which is supporting its weaker co-religionists. It is naive to think that Maliki could develop a politically effective program of outreach and inclusion even if he wanted to: the Shiites want to hold onto power, the Sunnis want majority rule.

    • B-Sabre

      The Sunnis in Iraq are a minority. Shia are the majority.

      • Andrew Allison

        My mistake. Thank you.

        • B-Sabre

          De nada.

      • Curious Mayhem

        Actually, the Sunnis are 19% of all of Iraq. You forgot the Kurds. It’s about 60-20-20 in total.

    • Corlyss

      “the Shiites aren’t interested in power sharing.”
      And that distinguishes them from the Iraqi Sunnis how . . . ?

      • Andrew Allison

        It doesn’t. The point of my comment was the sheer idiocy of, “So any action that we make take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq’s leaders to set aside sectarian differences, yada yada yada”

  • Arkeygeezer

    Our primary concern should be to evacuate Americans and American Contractors out of Iraq. It is reported that, “About 200 Americans under contract with the Department of Defense at Balad Air Force Base in Iraq are trapped by the al-Qaida-inspired jihadists”Read more at

    I hope that we do not have another Benghazzi developing here.

  • gabrielsyme

    I think we will find that Obama has precious few levers to induce Maliki to make substantial concessions to the Sunnis. The real and substantial assistance Maliki needs is going to come from Iran, not Obama, regardless of how well he acts. Moreover, because Iraq has a wholly inadequate constitution (we can thank the ideologically blinded neo-conservatives of the Bush Administration for that), just about any concessions made by Maliki could be walked back after the crisis ends.

    Ultimately, Obama needs to choose from among the available options, not engage in delusional dreams that Maliki turns into a pluralistic liberal or that the Free Syrian Army rolls over all opposition and creates a modern, united and pluralistic democracy in Syria.

    Obama might prefer to live in a dreamland, but reality can get pretty unpleasant.

  • Fred

    We have the prospect of a bunch of jihadi whack jobs too savage for Al Qaeda (!) with oil money and the weapons and organization of a nation state and President Gelding says “Solve your own problems. And oh by the way, we won’t send in any troops, so go to town ISIS.” Unbelievable, or it would be if it were anybody but our community organizer in chief.

  • ShadrachSmith

    The aggressive implementation of Soft Power:

  • Corlyss

    The best possible political compromise: crush the opposition and dictate peace terms.

    Dumbbells like Doofus (and the talk-addicted EUrocrats as well as UN toadies) don’t understand that. I point to the Tamil uprising in Sri Lanka. The two sides diddled around for 25 years under the aegis of whiny Eurocrats and UN types to no results except thousands of dead. The Chinese went in, told the Sri Lankans to put an end to it so China could come in to build infrastructure, and bang! We had a solution within a few months: the Sri Lankan army destroyed the opposition and its willingness to fight. Results: peace. This isn’t rocket science!

    This talk of accommodative settlement between tribes that have been killing each other for thousands of years and that belong to warring sects of the same religion is just arrant BS so typical of State and diplomats. If we had conducted WW2 like that, Germany would have the European Russia, most of Europe if not all, and Japan would still own China and Korea. Madness.

  • Angel Martin

    the past is prologue, obama will dither until it is too late, and then will take action that would have been inadequate even if it had been timely.

  • Arkeygeezer

    Obama can dither all he likes. Just give the orders to get our people out of there!

    I understand from news reports that American embassy officials are ordered to stay there because it would be “politically sensitive” to withdraw them now.

    Get them out of there!

    • Angel Martin

      that’s my point ! obama needs act militarily; but he also needs to withdraw the non-essential green zone personnel now, but he delays on both because of the short term politics

      worst case scenario here is now a combination of 1975 saigon evacuation and the iranian hostage crisis, with a failed rescue attempt.

  • charlesrwilliams

    The time for political compromises has past.

  • lukelea

    “a political ultimatum to Maliki and his government: we will only help you if you get serious about an inclusive government . . .”

    In other words, never? More likely we will try to shore up the Shia areas of Iraq (with Iran’s help?) and the country as a whole will be divided into three parts, as numerous informed experts have predicted since the original Bush invasion. These are highly inbred, tribal societies in the Middle East. Blood rules. You’ve got to be outbred to be like the West. That takes centuries to accomplish. Google “whatever happened to the tribes of Europe”

  • Curious Mayhem

    Maliki is on his way out. Iraq will soon be Lebanon without the charm. And Kurdistan is coming, even if it makes the Turks very unhappy.

    Erdogan will probably be another long-term casualty of this. He stayed in power, but failed to win a majority in the last two elections.

  • lhfry

    Obama will dither until Iran steps in just as in Syria he allowed Putin to save his bacon. It will be a problem for the next and future US presidents, not for Obama.

  • PDX_traveler

    Whether the root causes are political or not, it is clear as daylight that any American intervention should be on American terms. We are not bound to jump in to the rescue – the regional actors have to figure out if they need us, and if they do, well, they meet our terms. Maliki and the rest of the gang need to determine if they want a fragmented, pre WW2 “Iraq” or try for the currently constituted nation state. Similarly, if the people in the “Sunni” dominated provinces of Iraq want to be ruled by these ISIL groups, good luck to them. We will and should get involved only when said groups threaten us, and then target specifically those groups. Repeat this to yourselves as many times as you want – we… cannot … fix… this. Thank your stars we’ve got a guy smart enough to have learnt this. As for the doofuses who are eager to proffer these wonderful suggestions regarding military intervention, I have an idea – form some International Brigades, and go off and fight… put your money where your mouth is, so to speak.

    • RTO Dude

      “Thank your stars we’ve got a guy smart enough to have learned this.”
      Who are you referring to? We had “this” fixed. Your guy screwed it up.
      Our best foreign policy is to find enough rope to tie everyone on Obama’s team up in the basement. Anything we decide to do, we need to view through the Murphy’s Law lens of their capability to f’k up a wet dream.

      • PDX_traveler

        Who am I referring to? our current President.
        What you’re referring to, I have no clue.
        Though, if what you’re saying amounts to – sit on our hands and wait, and wait some more for the right moment (if that comes), yes, I agree.
        After all, the geniuses who were all worked up about not going bombs away in Syria last year – I wonder if they have the intellectual and moral integrity to own up that not wading in to that horrible affair is exactly the right call to have made.

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