Sun, Jun 15, 2014 - Page 7 News List

Obama on policy tightrope over Iraq

BALANCING ACT:The US president ruled out troops on the ground, advocating a careful approach to the conflict as officials stressed he will not be bullied into rash action


US President Barack Obama makes a statement on the Sunni militant insurgency taking place in Iraq from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington on Friday prior to departing for North Dakota.

Photo: EPA

When US President Barack Obama ran for office in 2008, he built his reputation as an anti-war candidate by disparaging US involvement in Iraq, adamantly insisting that “it’s time to end this war.”

Now, with Iraq’s US-backed government under its most serious threat since Obama pulled out the last US troops in 2011, he is being forced to consider what had previously seemed unthinkable — resorting to military force there again.

His challenge is to use military power carefully to help besieged Iraqis face down an Islamist insurgency without getting Washington drawn into an intractable conflict that would test war-weary Americans’ patience.

With that in mind, Obama issued a calibrated message on the White House South Lawn on Friday: He has a variety of options, but none involve US combat forces on the ground and he will take several days to consider them.

“I think we should look at the situation carefully,” he said.

Obama’s aim is to use the promise of US military force, such as airstrikes, as an enticement to Baghdad to take urgent steps to be more inclusive and stop the country from breaking up into sectarian enclaves.

“You don’t shy away from using force and when you do, you use it effectively with a plan, but you don’t overreach and you don’t use it as a first resort,” was how one senior administration official described the White House’s thinking.

However, the president’s deliberate approach may not tamp down the chorus of complaints from domestic critics over what they say is Obama’s tentative approach to dealing with crises abroad.

“It’s a luxury we don’t have. Events are unfolding too rapidly,” US Senator John McCain said.

Senior officials say Obama will not be badgered into a hasty decision by congressional critics like US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, who accused him of “taking a nap” as Iraq disintegrates.

Some of those finding fault now are the same people who consistently accuse Obama of not doing enough in Syria, where Obama condemned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but backed away from an earlier threat of airstrikes.

Senior officials now see three challenges for Obama in Iraq.

The first is to take short-term action to stop the well-armed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from overrunning Iraq and securing a base from which to launch external attacks, including on US targets.

This fits the principle he laid out in a speech at West Point last month, that Washington will use military force unilaterally if necessary “when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger.”

A medium-term goal is to ensure that Iraq has a plan to break down its sectarian divisions and unite the country, riven by strife between Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions.

A longer-term goal is to persuade Iraq’s allies to buy into a process to help hold the country together and to have Congress approve a US$5 billion counterterrorism fund to help Iraq and other nations deal with the extremist threat.

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