Making a brief return to Washington before resuming his two-week vacation, President Obama on Monday declared something of a victory in Iraq, saying U.S. air power in conjunction with Iraqi ground forces had pushed Islamist militants away from the crucial Mosul Dam.
The president again stressed that U.S. ground troops won’t return to Iraq and insisted that the mission will focus only on protecting American diplomatic personnel from the “savage” Islamic State fighters and assisting Iraqi and Kurdish forces in their larger battle against the al Qaeda-inspired group.
Mr. Obama made the comments after a day of meetings at the White House — a curious and unexplained two-day break from his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, scheduled even before the U.S. began airstrikes in Iraq and before unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, demanded his attention.
The president met with Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. in the afternoon to talk about Ferguson, and in the morning held a meeting with his national security team to get an update on Iraq, where he vowed the U.S. will not be drawn back into all-out war as long as the Iraqi government steps up.
“If we have effective partners on the ground, mission creep is much less likely. Typically what happens with mission creep is when we start deciding we’re the ones who have to do it all ourselves,” Mr. Obama said. “Because of the excellence of our military, that can work for a time. We learned that in Iraq. But it’s not sustainable. It’s not lasting. And so I’ve been very firm about this precisely because our goal has to be to build up a structure not just in Iraq but regionally that can be maintained and that is not involving us effectively trying to govern or impose our military will on a country that is hostile to us.”
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in recent days have raised the idea that U.S. ground forces may be necessary to defeat the Islamic State, whose fighters have slaughtered Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities. Others have suggested that the U.S. should expand its mission to target the Islamist group’s forces in neighboring Syria.
The president appeared to rule out both of those options Monday.
Instead, he said the U.S. will continue its limited mission of targeting Islamic State strongholds in Iraq and ensuring American personnel are kept safe while delivering humanitarian aid to those driven from their homes by the militants.
The confusion — amplified by the fact that reporters were told not to expect major news Monday or Tuesday — led to a wave of speculation by political pundits and others, some of whom wondered aloud whether the president was headed back to town because of a looming retirement by a Supreme Court justice, or to announce long-awaited executive action on immigration reform.
Analysts said it could be as simple as Mr. Obama wanting to blunt criticism for an extended break.
“Presidents may have little to do in these circumstances, but they must appear to be engaged in the crisis. Perceptions of inattentive overseeing of the nation’s affairs are compounded if these images are juxtaposed with those of the president enjoying himself on vacation,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written extensively on presidential leadership.
“If the perception is allowed to perpetuate that the president has no control — or possibly no interest in — a crisis or crises, then presidents quickly lose credibility,” he said. “This waning credibility can spill over into negotiations with Congress … making the president appear to be out of touch and powerless.”