Barack Obama's half-truths about US intervention in Iraq could come back to haunt him
By Peter Foster World Last updated: August 14th, 2014
Barack Obama is playing a dangerous game of semantics with the America people right now, promising that there will be "no boots on the ground" in Iraq even as teams of "advisers" (including US Marines) yesterday landed for the first time on Mt Sinjar.
Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary was "crystal" on this point last week, telling reporters that "under no circumstances would he [Mr Obama] be sending American troops, boots on the ground, back into combat in Iraq". By Tuesday, when he announced another 130 advisers, including Marines, would be joining the 800 or more advisers already in Iraq, he qualified this by saying "very specifically, this is not a combat boots-on-the-ground operation".
Even allowing for Special Forces who necessarily deploy without public fanfare and have been on the mountains for a good few days now guiding in those night-time aid drops, Mr Hagel's assurances are a stretch.
The question legitimately now being asked is when does a US Marine's boot become a "combat boot". Is it when he opens fire? Or when she gets fired upon? Or is it only when they get deployed in a "combat role"?
Of course, in practice, these distinctions are academic when a US helicopter crashes – as an Iraqi one did last week – or gets shot down by a lucky Islamic State jihadist and, worse nightmare for Mr Obama, the US is once again taking casualties again in Iraq.
The semantic games currently being played by the White House are dangerous because they mismanage public expectation about the current US operation in Iraq. And the half-truths and bogus justifications extend far beyond the deployment of "advisers".
So much of the justification of this US operation is specious. The stated aims of "protecting US personnel" or "averting genocide" are designed to both avoid having to go to Congress immediately for authorisation and to reassure a war-weary American public.
The reality is trickier and more unpalatable, but Mr Obama tries to sugar the pill to the point of silliness. The US is not "in the business of being the Iraqi air force", he said in a recent interview, when anyone with eyes can see that is precisely what is happening.
The Iraqi air force tried to repel IS advances in Northern Iraq last month, but it failed, so the US Air Force stepped in. Iraq's air force doesn't have the capability do these night-time aid drops for the Yazidis – so the USAF, and now the RAF, steps in.
The plight of the Yazidis is undeniably terrible, but it is not, in the cold world of realpolitik, the ultimate reason that the US has "come to help" – after all, Assad gassed all those children in Syria and the US and UK were nowhere to be seen.
In truth, Mr Obama, ever the reluctant interventionist, did everything in his power to avoid using air-strikes and deploying troops after the IS advances in June, but last week (rightly) accepted that he had no option but to intervene – or watch Erbil fall to the terrorists and with it any chance of a unity government getting off the ground in Baghdad.
Say it how you will, US air power is now underwriting Iraqi security for as long as it takes for moderate Iraqis to get the better of the jihadists – which, on the showing of the last year, could be a very long time indeed, despite all the billions spent and blood spilled after 2003.
Mr Obama is like a little boy who knows he's telling fibs and just hopes that something will happen so he won't get found out – that events will spare him from the logic of his own decision, and that a handful of pinpoint strikes and several shipments of weapons for the Kurds will be enough to allow the US to safely retire again.
But that is deeply unlikely since the third leg of Iraq political puzzle – the Sunnis – are not going to unite against the Islamic State threat until they can be very sure indeed that it can be beaten. The Sunnis already subscribed once to that plan during the American-sponsored "Awakening" and it did not pay them the dividend they had expected. One bitten, twice shy.
This is why Mr Obama refuses to put limits on the current operations, citing – disingenuously again – "my obligation, my responsibility as commander in chief, to make sure American personnel are protected".
These are personnel that he could have perfectly well evacuated from Erbil – as they were from Tripoli last month. But the personnel are only the pretext for an emergency intervention to shore up Iraq. Indeed, once the Yazidi are saved, Mr Obama could keep deploying US personnel forward as IS militants retreat, and keep "protecting" them with US airstrikes all the way up to the Syrian border. Mission creep defined.
For what it's worth, I wholeheartedly support Mr Obama's decision to intervene - on moral, strategic and practical grounds – and I wish equally wholeheartedly he had been more proactive in a host of other areas, including Syria, which spawned the Islamic State group in the first place.
But doing this without levelling with the American public will ultimately give him less leeway when something, as it very well might, goes wrong. On the contrary, the American public – understandably war-weary and sceptical, after the debacle of the 2003 – needs actively persuading of the moral and strategic necessity of US actions in Iraq, and that this time, the strategy is different.