Obama Aims to Avoid Repeat of Benghazi or Rwanda in Iraq

Saturday, 09 Aug 2014 06:40 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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President Barack Obama's Saturday address on Iraq offered little to appease criticism that he has no clear strategy behind his decision to order airstrikes on Islamic State militant fighters.

Obama reiterated that the mission is limited and will include humanitarian efforts to drop food and water to religious minorities trapped on Iraq's Mount Sinjar by ISIS fighters, as planning is underway to get them safely off the mountain.

Further, he said that airstrikes are being made to protect U.S. interests and citizens in the region, but would not give a timetable for the military exercise, saying it all depends on when the Iraq government is made more cohesive, which is "going to take some time."

Obama's decision to conduct the airstrikes came from a five-minute conversation in the back of the presidential limousine Wednesday night as he rode with Gen. Martin Dempsey,  the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reports The Wall Street Journal.

Dempsey outlined events in Iraq, including reports that ISIS fighters were defeating Kurdish troops and murdering people from religious minorities.

And after meeting in the Oval Office for an hour after that, which made him late for dining with African leaders in Washington this week for the first African leadership summit, Obama finalized his decision and ordered the strikes, just 24 hours after the meeting.

Fears of "another Benghazi" also came into play, a senior administration official, speaking anonymously to The New York Times, said about the deliberations.

"The situation near Erbil was becoming more dire than anyone expected," the official said. "We didn’t want another Benghazi," referring to the Sept. 11, 2012, terror attacks in Libya.

And Obama, while announcing his decision, insisted that while the action was not about returning to war in Iraq, it was to protect Americans living and working in Erbil and Baghdad.

"We have an embassy in Baghdad, we have a consulate in Erbil, and we have to make sure that they are not threatened," Obama told The Times' Thomas L. Friedman Friday. "Part of the rationale for the announcement yesterday was an encroachment close enough to Erbil that it would justify us taking shots."

The lessons of mass killings in Rwanda also came into play, and United National Ambassador Samantha Power, who wrote extensively about the Rwandan massacre, pushed for intervention in Iraq as well, The Wall Street Journal reports.

But by Thursday, the mission was more than humanitarian as well. Kurdish military forces were not able to hold the Mosul Dam, allowing ISIS to take over a key part of the Iraqi infrastructure, and Obama told his advisers to come up with military options to add to the humanitarian mission.

But on Saturday, Obama said it is up to Iraq, not the United States, to defeat ISIS and remove their threat, an admission that has many political and military experts concerned, reports The Daily Beast

In Saturday morning's address, Obama said it will eventually be up to the Iraqi government and military to improve the situation, which will have to include a joint effort by the Shiite-led government to include an increasingly alienated Sunni portion of the population.

ISIS' advances came because of Iraq's lack of an inclusive government, said Obama, and he indicated the United States will help with that, but will not be putting U.S soldiers on the ground.

"You’ve got to take the offensive against ISIS," Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain told The Daily Beast Friday. "We are paying the price for inaction and we are paying the price for withdrawal. [Doing more] would contradict some of the fundamentals of [Obama’s] national security policy. But it’s just tragic."

Two weeks ago, Dempsey said the military was preparing a strategy on ISIS, which it considered a threat to the United States and the Middle East.

Military officers are doubtful, though. One retired senior officer told The Daily Beast that it may be best to divide Iraq.

"The worst could be that they [ISIS] take control of the whole damn place," he said.
Still others fear the administration's slow action is too late to help other factions that have been fighting against ISIS, particularly in Syria, where opposition forces are not only losing to ISIS, but against their own government.

The Washington Post also listed its concerns about the perceived lack of policy when it comes to ISIS.

"By the White House’s own account, the measures ordered by Mr. Obama are not intended to defeat the Islamic State or even to stop its bloody advances in most of the region," a Post editorial complained. "Instead they are limited to protecting two cities where U.S. personnel are stationed and one mass of refugees. The hundreds of thousands of people in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere threatened by the al-Qaida forces will receive no U.S. protection. Nor will the terrorists’ hold over the areas they already control, including the large city of Mosul and nearby oil fields, be tested by U.S. air power."

Even if a new prime minister is nominated in Iraq this weekend, the Post editorial board said, "it probably will take Iraqis many more weeks to agree on a common political program, if they are able to do so at all."

The Post called for Obama to set aside his policy, which it described as "minimalist and unrealistic," and instead provide military support for friendly forces fighting ISIS.

Further, the United States should not push for a new government in Iraq unless there is a restructuring of power.

"The primary aim should not be to minimize U.S. involvement — as Mr. Obama would have it — but to defeat the forces that are destroying the region," The Post insists.

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