Will Obama Allow Mission Creep in Iraq?

There are some small signs that he already is.

U.S. President Barack Obama
President Obama speaks about developments in Iraq from the White House in Washington on Aug. 18, 2014.

Photo by Larry Downing/Reuters

On Aug. 7, President Obama authorized the use of force in Iraq. Announcing operations against ISIS (sometimes also referred to as the Islamic State or ISIL), the president promised not to get bogged down in another war. There were, and still are, reasons to believe that our military action in Iraq will remain limited. But in the two weeks since Obama’s announcement, his words and deeds have shifted. Here are the early signs of mission creep.

1. We must protect our people. And Iraq’s infrastructure. On Aug. 7, Obama specified two grounds for military action: to protect U.S. personnel in Iraq and to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis trapped by ISIS on Mt. Sinjar. Two days later, however, he added another issue: “We have to make sure that ISIL is not engaging in the actions that could cripple a country permanently. There’s key infrastructure inside of Iraq that we have to be concerned about.” Specifically, on Thursday, he authorized airstrikes “to recapture the Mosul Dam,” arguing that its destruction “could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad [280 miles away], and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace.” In Obama’s foreign policy, nation-building is out. But using force to help governments provide “critical services” is in.

2. We’re just going to stop ISIS. And push it back. On Aug. 7, Obama said force would be used strictly “to stop the advance on Erbil,” where U.S. diplomats and military advisers were located. On Aug. 9 and Aug. 11, he declared this mission a success. On Monday, he announced even better news: “Over the last 11 days, American airstrikes have stopped the ISIL advance around the city of Erbil, and pushed back the terrorists.” The recapture of the Mosul Dam, he argued, was just the beginning of a campaign to “push [ISIS] out of the land they have occupied.” While framing this as an Iraqi-led project, he added that “we will continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against ISIL.”

3. We must help these people. And those people. On Aug. 7, Obama depicted the crisis on Mt. Sinjar as uniquely deserving of military intervention. But on Aug. 9, he said the humanitarian task was broader: “Even as our attention is focused on preventing an act of genocide and helping the men and women and children on the mountain, countless Iraqis have been driven or fled from their homes, including many Christians.” On Thursday, he announced that the siege of Mt. Sinjar was broken but that “the situation remains dire for Iraqis subjected to ISIL’s terror throughout the country.” He offered more “missions like the one we carried out on Mt. Sinjar,” as long as they didn’t entail “committing combat troops on the ground.” In other words, open-ended air power.

4. No boots on the ground. At least, not many. On Aug. 7, Obama promised that “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.” He repeated that assurance on Aug. 9. But on Monday, after the Pentagon disclosed that “less than 20” military personnel had landed on Mt. Sinjar to assess the situation—adding to the previous allocation of 300 “military advisors” dispatched in June—Obama revised his language: “I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops back on the ground to engage in combat.” That formulation might be compatible with any deployment short of 2,000 people. And if necessary, it could be rephrased as a pledge not to reintroduce “tens of thousands” of troops.

5. We’ll do more as Iraq does more. On Aug. 7, Obama offered Iraq more military help as an inducement to form an inclusive government. He promised, “Once Iraq has a new government, the United States will work with it and other countries in the region to provide increased support to deal with this humanitarian crisis and counterterrorism challenge.” Two days later, as Iraqi politicians moved to fulfill their end of the bargain, Obama suggested that the change would enable “us to not just play defense, but also engage in some offense.” He says mission creep is more likely “when we start deciding that we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves.” But mission creep can also happen when you pledge to match your partner’s increasing commitments or add new objectives along the way.

6. No safe haven. In his weekly address on Aug. 9, Obama added a third mission to the military agenda: “We will protect our citizens. We will work with the international community to address this humanitarian crisis. We’ll help prevent these terrorists from having a permanent safe haven from which to attack America.” He repeated that point in a press conference: “We will continue to provide military assistance and advice to the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces as they battle these terrorists, so that the terrorists cannot establish a permanent safe haven.” That’s a huge undertaking. Any land controlled by ISIS can be construed as a safe haven. Does Obama plan to drive ISIS out of places such as Fallujah, which it held for months while the United States looked on? Does he plan to push ISIS all the way back to Syria?

Obama hasn’t forgotten all the principles that limited his commitment. He continues to insist that the solution to Iraq’s crisis is political, that Iraqis must achieve that solution themselves, and that putting U.S. troops on the ground creates a dangerous rationale for additional deployments to protect them. But 12 days into the military campaign, he’s showing signs of slippage. He’d better watch himself.