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Obama’s credible threat

Shadowing our big Father’s Day sports weekend has been the cresting disaster in Iraq, where people who are decidedly not our friends have taken over much of the country and are committing mass executions. The hawks are demanding that the U.S. intervene quickly, first with air strikes and, possibly, with boots on the ground. Here’s Frederick Kagan:

Rejoining the fight means immediately sending air support; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets; air transportation; Special Operations forces; training teams; and more military equipment back into Iraq. It does not mean re-invading Iraq.

Immediately sending air support and Special Forces to Mosul might shock ISIS and embolden the population enough to rout the jihadis from the city. But if it does not, the Iraqi Security Forces may well prove unable to regain Mosul on their own.

In that case, a small contingent of U.S. ground forces would be required.

I’m guessing that U.S. intervention is inevitable — but only after Obama gets what he wants, which are political concessions from the rulers of Iraq so that, as one of my colleagues puts it, there’s a central government in place that non-ISIS Iraqis would be willing to fight for.

Pending that, what we have seen from Obama is the credible threat of doing nothing.

He’s saying, essentially: “You know me. I’ve done nothing before. I’m perfectly capable of doing nothing again.”

Most presidents couldn’t pull that off. Historically these kinds of threats have gone the other way: Presidents threaten force and hope that the threat is viewed as credible. In Richard Nixon’s case, he fostered the Madman Theory, hoping to convey a reputation for being willing to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Let them think I’m crazy as a bedbug, was his idea. Via Wikipedia we see this classic Nixon quote from  H.R. Haldeman’s memoir:

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, “for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button” and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

Obama now inverts this and can make Maliki and other Iraqi government officials believe that Obama would just as soon play 36 holes as come to their rescue.

The White House will leak photos of Obama doing the crossword puzzle, or playing ping-pong, or sliding under an old car to fiddle with the transmission.

This is Obama’s Starbucks strategy: Threaten total disengagement.

Intervention is a bargaining chip and a president doesn’t want to bargain with himself. It may rile the hawks to see the U.S. doing nothing, but sometimes doing nothing is exactly what you want to do prior to doing something. Here’s Obama:

So any action that we may 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.

Of course, this is a pressing crisis, with massacres underway. How long do you wait? What’s your standard for necessary political reforms? Who can you trust? Delay carries its own suite of risks and potential unanticipated consequences. Iran is lurking. The Kurds are consolidating in the north.

But as Kagan himself notes in his article, the advance of ISIS is likely to stop when it reaches the Shiite areas of Iraq. Kagan writes of ISIS: “It is no longer a terrorist group. It is becoming a nascent state with a small army.” Scary as that is, it would present the U.S. with a military target. Rolling back the gains of an army is more easily accomplished — and more easily measured and explained the public that pays for such actions — than taking out scattered terrorists or solving a sectarian conflict.

The first Persian Gulf War didn’t satisfy U.S. hawks, because it left Saddam in power, but the Powell Doctrine carried with it the promise that we would pursue only those objectives that were clearly achievable. In 1991, there was a clear objective of rolling back the Iraqi invasion, and the plan used overwhelming force. It worked. Then we had a big parade.

You will hear that Americans are weary of war. That is not exactly correct: Americans are weary of wars that have no metrics of success and are fought on behalf of people we’re not even sure are our friends. Americans would support military action in Iraq and would probably understand that it will inevitably be messy, and not a clean hit like 1991.

After a period of coyness about what we might do, expect Obama and the generals to come to the American people with a clearly stated, limited objective, and a plan for an intervention that includes, at bare minimum, a plausible narrative for how it would end.

Further reading:

Here’s Clive Crook suggesting that the U.S. political climate may prevent the country from having the foreign policy it needs.

Reidar Visser in Foreign Affairs offers lots of background on the complexities of Iraqi politics and the possibility of a formal partition of the country.

Andrew Sullivan says Obama is the only grown-up left in Washington and that the presidents he most resembles right now are Ike and George H.W. Bush.



Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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