Iraq calculus shifts for Obama

Iraq calculus shifts for Obama
© Getty Images

The brutal execution of American journalist James Foley by Islamist militants is forcing the White House to re-evaluate its calculus in Iraq. 

Foley’s killing has raised new calls for the president to expand the U.S. role in Iraq, with advocates arguing that the journalist’s videotaped beheading underscores the threat posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The White House appeared to see Foley’s killing as an escalation; President Obama broke from his vacation on Wednesday to make an on-camera statement in which he vowed to protect American citizens.

The Pentagon is reportedly thinking about sending more U.S. military advisers to Iraq and also appeared to intensify its bombing campaign against ISIS following the video’s release. It announced 14 airstrikes against targets in northern Iraq, bringing the total number of U.S. fighter jet and drones strikes against ISIS targets to 84 since operations began in early August.

“When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what is necessary to make sure justice is done,” Obama said in remarks from Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where he is vacationing.

Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted that ISIS “must be destroyed/will be crushed.”

Still, Obama faces familiar constraints moving forward, leading many observers to conclude Foley's death would not be a game changer for U.S. policy.

A war-weary public has little appetite for further conflict in Iraq, and Obama has vowed repeatedly that the United States would not return boots to the ground.

While there are calls in some quarters of Congress for more aggressive actions, many more lawmakers, particularly in Obama’s party, are reluctant to back forceful steps if it would risk mission creep in Iraq.

Iraq is also seen internationally as a problem for the United States, making it difficult for the White House to find international support.

“I don't mean this to sound heartless, but this doesn't change the policy,” one former National Security Council official said. “It makes it more personal, but it doesn't mean we are going to commit thousands of troops. We knew of the brutality of ISIS.”

Much of Obama’s message on Wednesday was an appeal for global action.

He declared that “the entire world is appalled by the brutal murder” of Foley and called for “a common effort to extract this cancer so that it does not spread.”

“There has to be a clear rejection of this kind of nihilistic ideologies,” the president said.

U.S. officials have asked partners in the region to help restrict the flow of arms and funding to the terror group, and allies in Paris and Baghdad, following discussions with the State Department, called for a beefed up international response. 

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the U.S. was working with allies to cut off ISIS’s financing.

But current and former administration officials depicted that work as “ongoing,” rather than in direct response to the video.

U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions so far have been meant to slow the group down and prevent it from killing civilians or overrunning Kurdish positions.

To actually defeat the movement, military experts say Obama would have to order a much more massive air attack.

“This is not going to be accomplished with a handful of strikes. It's going to take several hundred strike sorties per day that need to be applied as rapidly as possible,” retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula said in an interview.

He said air attacks would need to support from Iraqi forces on the ground. 

“Airpower needs to be applied like a thunderstorm, not a drizzle,” Deptula said.

Obama scored a political victory last week, when embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resigned under pressure.

It’s thought that al-Maliki’s resignation will make it easier to unify Iraqi Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds against ISIS, though experts say training and building up Iraq’s army will still be a challenge.

“Given how badly they've performed, I'd say it's going to take some significant time,” said Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. 

The complexities of additional intervention were apparent in statements Wednesday from leaders on Capitol Hill, who said Foley’s killing was deserving of a response without aligning around a specific policy prescription.

Instead, Republican leaders said the president should present a more coherent strategy for untangling the increasingly complex situation presented by ISIS.

“It's not enough just to attack a mountain or retake a dam,” said Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), calling on the president to clarify his overall strategy.

Deptula sounded a pessimistic note on the United States' ability to create change in Iraq.

“These are conflicts between religious sects that have been ongoing for 14 centuries," he said. “We've made strategic mistakes in falling into this notion that we can mold another country's military and politics.” 

— This story was updated at 10:35 a.m.