5 key problems for Obama in Iraq

Getty Images

There is no simple answer for the White House in dealing with the sweeping offensive by al Qaeda-affiliated militants in Iraq.

The domestic and international politics of the situation are both complicated, and even critics of the administration agree there are few good options.

Here are five problems that make this foreign policy crisis especially difficult for President Obama.

Iran

Iran is seen as a U.S. enemy, but it is aligned with Iraq’s embattled prime minister, a fellow Shiite Muslim under siege by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a Sunni Muslim group.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has sent hundreds of members of the Revolutionary Guard to Iraq to assist its government, and Iran has signaled that it would be willing to coordinate with the U.S. if Obama opts to tack military action.

That will give Washington pause, says Steven Cook, a fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Is Iran is an honest actor? And does the U.S. want to do anything that would strengthen Iran’s influence within Iraq? Tehran’s involvement also risks deepening sectarian divides within Iraq, officials say.

“I don't expect we will be working with the Iranians and I think we probably don't want to be working with the Iranians on salvaging Iraq right now,” Cook said.

The White House said Friday it has had no contact with Iran so far, and White House press secretary Jay Carney encouraged the Maliki government to approach alliances with Iran “prudently.”

Yet if Washington and Iran do cooperate, it could facilitate nuclear talks between the countries.

The Kurds

Iraq’s Kurdish minority in the oil-rich north have long sought greater autonomy, and the crisis has presented an opportunity.

Kurdish forces seized control the city of Kirkuk this week as Iraqi government troops fled. And the Kurds look closer to their hope for their own state.

That’s a big problem for the United States, given fears in NATO-member Turkey about its own Kurdish minority.

Iraq’s Kurds are expected to insist that Baghdad permanently cede them control of Kirkuk, and that it lift threats to sue companies who purchase Kurdish oil directly, bypassing Baghdad. T

The U.S. has long sought to keep Iraq unified, but the Obama Administration will be under pressure to allow the free flow of some 2 million barrels of Kurdish into the market. Crude oil rose to a nine-month high last week amid fears over Iraq’s instability.

Iraq’s central government

To what extent does President Obama want to support Iraqi President Nouri Al-Maliki regime?

He’s been unreliable, and administration officials remain outraged that he reneged on promises to include moderate Sunni leaders in his government, and to share oil revenues. 

His refusal to work with Iraq’s minorities is the main reason ISIS has established such a foothold in the country, critics say.

The administration may see the current chaos as leverage in forcing Maliki to be more inclusive. Obama signaled Friday that the U.S. will not authorize additional military assistance without political concessions from Baghdad.

That will increase Maliki’s desperation, as he may be fighting not only for his political life, but his physical life as well.

“Maliki is desperate for us to help out,” said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That provides some opportunities for some conditionality.”

Congress

Opponents and allies alike on Capitol Hill have seized on the Iraqi crisis to criticize Obama.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has demanded the president fire his national security staff, while others have slammed him for initially resisting Maliki’s request for air strikes.

Obama is also grappling with members of his own party who steadfastly oppose any return to Iraq.

“I would be very, very reluctant to dive back into that,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told CNN. “Are the al-Qaeda militants in Iraq threatening the U.S. in some way? Otherwise, we’d be being dragged into a war in a very difficult to predict way.”

Reluctant Democrats submarined the president’s attempt to rally support for air strikes against the regime in Syria following a chemical weapons attack last year.

“It’s very hard for an administration to do things without the support of the public or without the support of their party,” said Cook.

Afghanistan

Any military reengagement in Iraq will invite questions about Afghanistan.

The White House has defended its decision to remove all troops from that country by the end of 2016, but critics say the chaos in Iraq is likely to be repeated if Obama goes through with the plan.

The White House could use the events in Iraq to push the Afghan government — which itself has invited uprisings and strife because of corrupt practices — to demand reform ahead of its withdrawal, said Chayes.

But it could also force the U.S. away from the schedule laid out by Obama.

“It would seem to me that, even though these are vastly different situations, we might want to reevaluate his decision based on timeline rather than what the conditions are,” Cook said.

The White House is saying that for now, nothing has changed.

“We are ending that combat mission this year,“ Carney said Thursday.