Obama: Military Operations in Iraq Are Open-Ended

Obama: Military Operations in Iraq Are Open-Ended

By Alexis Simendinger - August 9, 2014

President Obama warned Americans Saturday that the U.S. military operation in Iraq is open-ended, and he did not discount that it could be years before the Iraqi government is able to independently thwart terrorists who seek a permanent foothold there.

“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama said. “I think this is going to take some time.”

Responding to questions after delivering a statement about Iraq, Obama stressed that U.S. military airstrikes in the near term are protecting American diplomatic and military personnel and defending thousands of Iraqis cornered by terrorists atop a mountain. But he suggested U.S. military defenses from the air and U.S. counterterrorism assistance may be needed for a prolonged period.

“I’m not going to give a particular timetable,” he said following remarks regarding the two days of what he called successful airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops of food and water to tens of thousands of people trapped on Mount Sinjar.

The president outlined a U.S. military operation that is providing humanitarian assistance first, to be followed by an effort to bring the Yezidis and other ethnic and religious minorities down from where they fled from by extremists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The refugees will then be relocated to a safe place.

“That may take some time,” Obama said, noting that defending and escorting tens of thousands of frightened families to new locations will be an international operation requiring planning and coordination.

“They’re in the thousands, and moving them is not simple in this kind of security environment,” he said.

Obama stressed that the timetable most on his mind is not Iraq’s near-term defense challenges, but the long-term task of seeing the Iraqi government complete its selection of leaders and commit to inclusive governance that can eventually become an antidote, as he sees it, to militant extremists such as ISIL (also known as ISIS).

“I think part of what we’re able to do right now is to preserve a space for them to do the hard work that’s necessary,” the president said. “If they do that, the one thing that I also think has changed is that many of the Sunni countries in the region, who have been generally suspicious or wary of the Iraqi government, are more likely to join in the fight against ISIS, and that can be extremely helpful. But this is going to be a long-term project.” 

The president described a U.S. goal of containing ISIL rather than defeating the terrorist army, which is operating in both Iraq and Syria. When asked if the solutions he envisioned for Iraq would take years rather than months, the president did not dispute that timeline.

“We can assist and our military obviously can play an extraordinarily important role in bolstering efforts of an Iraqi partner as they make the right steps to keep their country together, but we can’t do it for them,” he repeated.   

He reiterated his vow that U.S. combat forces would not return to Iraq during his presidency. But he described ongoing U.S. military, counterterrorism, and political engagement that may endure as long as conditions on the ground in Iraq demand them -- and as long as the Iraqi government remains weakened.

“The Iraqi security forces, in order to mount an offensive and be able to operate effectively with the support of populations in Sunni areas, are going to have to revamp, get resupplied -- have a clearer strategy,” he said. “That’s all going to be dependent on a government that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi military have confidence in. We can help in all those efforts.”

Obama conceded U.S. intelligence underestimated ISIL’s abilities to capture territory swiftly, mobilize with efficiency, and launch assaults the Iraqi people and the country’s security forces could not combat.

“There is no doubt that their advance, their movement over the last several months has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and I think the expectations of policymakers, both in and outside of Iraq,” he said.

The president bristled when asked whether the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq contributed to ISIL’s rise and its violent rampage, and whether Iraq offers lessons as U.S. forces prepare to exit Afghanistan at the end of the year. Obama also sidestepped his renowned criticisms of the Iraq War, as well as his campaign promises to end it, as he declared he did at the end of 2011.

“What I just find interesting is the degree to which this issue keeps on coming up, as if this was my decision,” the president said. “In order for us to maintain troops in Iraq, we needed the invitation of the Iraqi government and we needed assurances that our personnel would be immune from prosecution.”

The new Iraqi government would not sign such an agreement, which compelled the removal of troops, he said, arguing that as president he could not force a sovereign nation to keep U.S. military forces in place.

“Let’s just be clear,” Obama said. “The reason that we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq was because … a majority of Iraqis did not want U.S. troops there, and politically they could not pass the kind of laws that would be required to protect our troops in Iraq.”

With clear irritation, the president said “that entire analysis is bogus and is wrong.”

The U.S. military mission, at least for the time being, will not require new appropriations, the president added. Late Friday, he formally notified Congress of operations in Iraq under the terms of the War Powers Resolution. On Saturday he said existing appropriations and U.S. “assets” already in the region should be sufficient. If new requests are necessary, he said he would consult lawmakers. Congress will return to Washington from a month-long recess in September.

“Right now, at least, I think we are okay,” Obama said.

Dressed in a blue sport coat and without a tie, the president ended his remarks and walked into the White House residence, returning moments later to board Marine One, which was parked and waiting for him on the South Lawn.

With him were wife Michelle and daughter Malia, as well as National Security Adviser Susan Rice and national security spokesman Ben Rhodes. The Obamas on Saturday began a two-week vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, which will be interrupted by a fundraiser there on Monday and a return to Washington by the president Aug. 17-19 for what has only been described as “meetings” with staff.

Asked if he was ready for his vacation, Obama paused and smiled.

“I’m ready to not have a suit on for a while,” he said.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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