Obama goes back into Iraq

The United States has resumed military operations in Iraq. Last week, U.S. warplanes twice struck Islamic militants that were advancing through Iraq and expanding territory they claim as part of the Islamic State. The U.S. also airdropped weapons to the Kurds and relief supplies to members of the Yazidi sect who fled to a mountaintop in their search for shelter from insurgents who demanded that they convert to Islam or die.

The U.S. actions were undertaken in a desire to avert “genocide,” but relief will only be temporary. As ever, there is no military solution to Iraq’s problems. The only enduring answer is political, and the key will be found in Baghdad.

Militants of the Islamic State continue their march through Iraq. After moving south from Syria, where they control nearly one-third of the country, they first routed the forces of the Iraqi government, exposing the tenuous legitimacy and authority of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

They then turned to face the peshmerga, the once feared military of Iraq’s Kurds. For a couple reasons, that military has not lived up to its reputation, and the Islamic State militants have seized one city and oil field after another. The movement’s black flag is now atop Iraq’s largest dam and its forces are less than 50 km from Irbil, the capital of Kurdish Iraq.

The militants have lived up to their reputation. Unbelievers have been offered the choice to convert or face beheadings or crucifixion. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled instead, bringing the total number of people displaced this year in Iraq to more than 1 million, creating a humanitarian crisis that would be difficult even for a functioning government to tackle. Reportedly, hundreds of Yazidi women have been captured and held, either as hostages or slaves.

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained last week, “The stakes for Iraq’s future cannot be clearer.” He warned that the Islamic State’s “campaign of terror against the innocent, including the Christian minority, and its grotesque targeted acts of violence show all the warning signs of genocide.”

U.S. President Barack Obama used the prospect of genocide to justify last week’s airstrikes to destroy artillery batteries, mortar positions and a convoy carrying weapons for the Islamic State militants.

After the U.S. airdropped supplies to the Yazidi refugees, Britain and France said they would follow suit.

Obama has promised that the U.S. would continue to provide military assistance and advice to Baghdad, and acknowledged that “this problem … is going to take some time.” He also warned that the U.S. and Iraq’s other friends and partners do not have the solution to this problem. Military force will not bring peace and stability to Iraq.

The only real answer will be political and demands the formation of a new government, one that can claim to speak for all Iraqis. The current government does not.

Maliki is a partisan who has been more set on settling scores and ensuring Shiite rule than building the foundations of a stable and representative Iraqi government. Maliki may be the most popular politician in the country, but he only has the respect of and authority over his constituents.

Others see him as a sectarian tyrant. Fortunately for him, the militants of the Islamic State — who were kicked out of al-Qaida for being too violent — are too extreme even for disaffected Sunnis, but that realization has not helped the government to stop the erosion of the Iraqi state.

Baghdad now hopes to mobilize militias to fight the extremists, but that task will remain difficult as long as Maliki remains head of the government.

Fortunately, other Shiite leaders in Baghdad are getting the message. The country’s supreme Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has dismissed unnamed politicians who cling to posts as making a “grave mistake.” It is statements such as this that could break the political deadlock that has kept Maliki in power.

Obama must hope Maliki gets the message. The U.S. president took office seeking to end his country’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Keeping that promise has cost him dearly as political opponents in the U.S. blame him for Iraq’s disintegration. That is absurd, of course, and the president has been properly cautious about taking any steps that risk the resumption of U.S. military activities in Iraq.

Until last week, Obama had refused to intervene militarily despite the Islamic State’s advances, rightly noting that dropping bombs from 10,000 meters requires the stationing of U.S. forces on the ground to verify targeting data. And airstrikes will still not solve Iraq’s problem.

Worse, it could force the U.S. to take sides, and appear to be acting not just as the Iraqi Air Force, but as Maliki’s air force. If such actions deterred Maliki from making political concessions, then the U.S. would have bought a little time while making the long-term situation worse.

Obama must now carefully calibrate support for Iraq. He must continue to try to halt the genocide and other murderous behavior of the Islamic State, without giving Maliki an excuse to stay in power. He must have clear objectives in mind and the means not only to achieve them but also to assess the progress of U.S. action. Obama must avoid another quagmire — this time of his own making.