President Barack Obama should authorize air strikes “as quickly as possible” to thwart radical Islamist forces advancing toward Baghdad, said former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.
Given the momentum shown by the Sunni insurgents, it is “entirely appropriate” for the U.S. to help Iraq’s government as it marshals its own defense forces, he said.
“I don’t think Baghdad is under imminent threat but, still, it is an alarming situation,” Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq in 2004 to 2005, said in an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend.
Obama said yesterday he is reviewing possible actions, including military measures, though he coupled that with a strong message that his decision will depend upon commitments by the Shiite-led Iraqi government to be politically responsive to its Sunni population.
“Although events on the ground in Iraq have been happening very quickly, our ability to plan, whether it’s military action or work with the Iraqi government on some of these political issues, is going to take several days,” Obama said at the White House. “So people should not anticipate that this is something that is going to happen overnight.”
Speaking before the president’s comments, Negroponte called for a quick decision, given the deteriorating situation on the ground.
“Every day, every hour it seems, time is lost,” said Negroponte, who in President George W. Bush’s administration also served as the nation’s top intelligence official from 2005 to -2007.
The radical insurgents, led by an al-Qaeda offshoot, Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, have drawn support from other Sunnis disaffected by the government led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Iraqi army and security forces have fled, often abandoning U.S.-supplied weapons and uniforms.
While the fighters have advanced quickly though the largely Sunni areas of northern Iraq, they are likely to face tougher resistance once they move into Shiite-dominated areas, Negroponte said.
“Even without added assistance from the U.S. government, I think this force is going to meet pushback from the Iraqi armed forces, because they’re going to come up against better troops and a less-friendly environment,” he said.
Still, he added, it is necessary for Maliki, a Shiite, to govern in a way that reconciles Sunnis and Shiites.
“If there isn’t political change, and if the factions in Baghdad don’t rally together and present some kind of a united front, it’s going to be very difficult to give it effective assistance, and the situation runs the risk of getting even worse,” said Negroponte, 74.
He said the conflict “makes strange bedfellows” in that the U.S., Syria and Iran share an interest in not wanting to see a Sunni extremist movement take over large portions of Iraq.
If the situation worsens, “the country could plunge into some kind of a civil war or even move towards a breakup,” he said. “I don’t think we’re at that point yet, but those are the kinds of threats that loom on the horizon if this situation isn’t contained and stabilized.”
Further, he said, the U.S. has an obligation to aid a government it has been supporting.
“If we don’t help and the situation further deteriorates, what signal is that going to send to other countries around the world who have relied on our assistance?” he asked.
Negroponte said Maliki, who is now seeking U.S. military help, had blocked efforts during Bush’s administration to reach an accord to keep a residual U.S. force after the withdrawal of combat troops.
Maliki didn’t want the deal at the time because “he felt it carried too much political freight for him inside his own country,” Negroponte said.
Bush didn’t press the issue because he concluded it could be left to his successor to try to deal with, Negroponte said. Obama withdrew all U.S. forces in December 2011 after failing to reach an agreement on any residual forces for training and counterterrorism activities.
The Iraq experience “draws a lesson for us vis-a-vis Afghanistan,” Negroponte said. “If possible, in these situations, we shouldn’t withdraw too quickly.”