In his keynote address at the May 28 West Point graduation, US President Barack Obama spoke at length about the war on terror, but failed to dedicate one word to Iraq, where Islamist extremists were fast gaining ground by then.
“Let me make one final point about our efforts against terrorism,” Obama said. “When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do – through capture operations, like the one that brought a terrorist involved in the plot to bomb our Embassies in 1998 to face justice; or drone strikes, like those we have carried out in Yemen and Somalia.“
The president emphasized that “in taking direct action, we must uphold standards that reflect our values. That means taking strikes only when we face a continuing, imminent threat, and only where there is near certainty of no civilian casualties. For our actions should meet a simple test: we must not create more enemies than we take off the battlefield.
We need a strategy that matches this “diffuse threat,” that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military thin, or stir up local resentments.
Obama hedges action round with ifs and buts
The US president’s detailed catalogue of “ifs” and “buts” effectively holds America back from any thought of military involvement in the war on terror – except perhaps sending over a small parcel of arms for Iraqi soldiers and instruction in their use. The lightening advances made by Al Qaeda’s Islamist State for Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are taking place on a different planet from the site of the White House in Washington.
DEBKA Weekly's Washington sources report that the Obama administration has applied to Al Qaeda’s systematic advance in Iraq in the last since months the same non-intervention policy as it has in the Syrian civil war – with one major difference. In Syria, the administration tried to differentiate between the “bad” rebels, supposed Islamists or a Qaeda associates, and the “good” rebels who were allotted a grudging quantity of US weapons.
In Iraq, the Americans faced a quandary: Their response to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s appeal for weapons to counter terrorists was even more grudging, lest he use them to arm Shiites to fight Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds.
In early May, US Special Forces opened a training camp in Jordan for Iraqi officers and soldiers who will be countering Al Qaeda. But this gesture cannot obscure the fact that, among the Iraqi Army’s 1 million US-trained officers and soldiers, none are willing or able to take on Al Qaeda or any other serious enemy, or risk life and limb for the sake of Maliki’s corrupt regime.
Even 1,000 US troops could have stalled the ISIS advance
The swift fall of Mosul and Tikrit has called into question the American logic of concentrating its anti-Al Qaeda efforts in Syria on its southern border around Deraa and Quneitra, with the aim of establishing a pro-Western enclave to secure the Jordanian and Israeli borders. For if Al Qaeda manages to control the length of the Iraqi-Syrian border, including territory in eastern Syria itself, the danger presented by Syrian President Bashar Assad and his forces will take second place to Al Qaeda’s.
The Syrian rebels the US has been backing and using as its proxies in southern Syria are not trained or equipped for direct confrontation with jihadis.
Obama’s West Point speech described the situation on the ground in Jordan, where the border with Iraq has become a potential hotspot following the massing of ISIS fighters in the western Iraq province of Anbar.
But a large-scale military drill dubbed Eager Lion 2014 has brought 13,000 troops to the Hashemite Kingdom next door – mostly Marines and members of special forces, as well as 9,000 troops from Jordan and 21 other countries, mostly Gulf and other Muslim nations. The US-led international alliance for fighting the war on terror is therefore already on site and in working order.
Ground, air and naval forces are at the ready, including a special naval force for taking on ISIS fighters on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.
With the go-ahead from Obama, the Saudi Arabian and Jordanian kings and some Gulf rulers, the war game could be rapidly transformed in to a full-scale military operation, crossing into western Iraq and opening a second front to the rear of the ISIS.
Even 1,000 American troops, had they been sent across into Iraq in time, could have put the brakes on the ISIS’s rapid momentum through the Sunni heartland of Iraq after the surprise fall of Mosul, DEBKA Weekly’s military experts maintain.
Money train allies on front lines, but no US boots on the ground
However, all these forces, while combat-ready, will stay where they are because Obama won’t give the order to advance against the Islamist terrorist threat engulfing Iraq, or go back on the doctrine he set forth at West Point.
“When I first spoke at West Point in 2009, we still had more than 100,000 troops in Iraq,” the president told the graduates in that speech. “We were preparing to surge in Afghanistan. Our counter-terrorism efforts were focused on Al Qaeda’s core leadership. And our nation was just beginning a long climb out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Four and a half years later, the landscape has changed. We have removed our troops from Iraq.”
Obama then recalled, “I proposed a new Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines."
He made it clear that this money will not translate to boots on the ground so long as he sits in the White House up to January 2017.
This aloof approach to the galloping Iraqi crisis was reflected in the frosty reply State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki made Wednesday, June ll – after the fall of Tikrit – to urgent reporters’ questions:
“We are concerned by this deteriorating security problem,” she said, refusing to be drawn any further.
No help from Iran, which has its own secret Al Qaeda ties
By mid-week, the gravity of the Iraq crisis began to sink in for the administration and there was quiet talk about leveraging the ISIS disaster to salvage the nuclear talks with Iran.
Those negotiations reached yet another dead end this week, despite Obama’s appointment of US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Vice President Joe Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan to spearhead a rescue operation for diplomacy.
This sent a signal of desperation to Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and betrayed US readiness for further concessions.
The administration considered a Tehran-Washington partnership to battle ISIS (see item in this issue on the Iranian position on regional developments). In any event, it seems likely that a final agreement will lead to US-Iran cooperation at least in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, DEBKA Weekly's sources say that this remedy was swiftly wiped off the table when it became apparent on June 10 that the nuclear talks had stalled. White House advisers also pointed out that Tehran is not an ideal partner for fighting ISIS, given its own network of clandestine Al Qaeda connections.