With Iraq threatened by Islamist militants and lawmakers warning that the entire country is in danger, President Obama on Sunday defended his administration’s handling of the crisis and again rejected the notion that the U.S. should send ground troops everywhere terrorists pop up.
Critics say Mr. Obama’s tack is further proof that his foreign policy over the past five years has created conditions that now threaten the stability of the whole Middle East.
Mr. Obama has expanded the U.S. role in Iraq by sending 300 military advisers to help the government in Baghdad try to hold the nation together.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a group of Sunni militants, continues to make major gains and has taken four key towns within two days.
The organization, also known as ISIS based on a different way of translating its Arabic name, also seized two more border crossings between Iraq and Syria on Sunday, according to The Associated Press.
Sunday was especially violent in Baghdad, as a car bomb and a suicide bomber targeted the funeral of a senior Iraqi military officer, killing eight and injuring 13.
Mr. Obama has struggled to explain how the U.S. will handle the growing chaos. He has launched something of a media blitz, including an interview Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
In that interview, the president acknowledged that Iraq is in danger but stood by his conviction that the U.S. must not engage in what he called a “Whack-A-Mole” strategy of sending forces to all corners of the world to counter terrorist threats.
Nevertheless, he did concede that ISIL poses a direct threat to the U.S., though not an immediate one.
“I think it’s fair to say that their extreme ideology poses a medium- and long-term threat. There are a lot of groups out there that probably have more advanced immediate plans directed against the United States that we have to be on constant guard for,” he said on “Face the Nation.”
Mr. Obama said the group did present the region’s pro-U.S. governments with a challenge, but one the U.S. could not solve alone or solve militarily.
“Right now, the problem with ISIS is the fact that they are destabilizing a country that could spill over into some of our allies, like Jordan, and that they are engaged in wars in Syria where in that vacuum that’s been created,” the president continued. “This is going to be a global challenge and one that the United States is going to have to address, but we’re not going to be able to address it alone. And as I said yesterday, what we can’t do is think that we’re just going to play Whack-A-Mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries, wherever these organizations pop up. We’re going to have to have a more focused, more targeted strategy.”
Critics say the administration’s targeted strategy has proved to be a failure, and lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle say years of progress in Iraq — beginning with the 2003 war through the withdrawal of American forces in 2011 — may be lost.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney had especially harsh words for the president, saying his foreign policy will cause reverberations far beyond Iraq.
“The first thing we have to do is recognize we’ve got a hell of a problem, and it’s not just in Iraq,” Mr. Cheney said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.” “The difficulty, the spread of the terrorist organizations, is not recognized by the administration. The proliferation of nuclear capability and the possibility that it could fall into the hands of terrorists is not really being addressed at all. And I appreciate the problems we’ve got in Iraq right now, but what I think we need is a broad strategy that lets us address this whole range of issues, and that involves reversing a number of the policies of the Obama administration.”
Despite such criticism, the president has said explicitly that the U.S. will not send a full complement of ground troops back into Iraq. Doing so would be an acknowledgment that fighting has continued despite Mr. Obama’s contention that he successfully ended the Iraq War in 2011.
Although ground troops appear not to be an option, the consensus, even among Mr. Obama’s fellow Democrats, is that the worst may be yet to come. They fear Iraq is on the brink of an all-out civil war, or of falling under total control of extremists who may use the nation to plot and launch attacks against American citizens or assets.
“The Iraqi state, as a state, is in danger,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said during an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday. “And we are on the verge of something very serious. And I think we have to meet it. I think our allies have to help us.”
Mr. Obama also stressed that U.S. allies have a pivotal role in restoring order to Iraq.
But no matter how bad the situation becomes, the White House as well as Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill harbor no desire to commit U.S. troops to armed conflict in Iraq.
“I’m not willing to send my son into that mess,” Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said on “State of the Union.”