Not a happy thought.

Photographer: Drew Angerer/Bloomberg

Obama's New Iraq Strategy: Don't Lose

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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If you’ve been following the crisis in Greece, you may not have noticed, but President Barack Obama held a news conference Monday at the Pentagon that will be significant for his legacy. What was important was not so much what he said as what he didn’t say: that there’s any chance of defeating Islamic State in the foreseeable future. Instead, the president emphasized that the fight against the Sunni Muslim insurgent group will be “long” and that experience has shown that it can be “degraded” only with effective local ground forces.

In effect, Obama was acknowledging that when he leaves office, Islamic State will still be around. And he was signaling that his real objective now is to keep the militants from entering Baghdad before his presidency ends. If this sounds familiar, it should: It’s basically the same strategy the U.S. has been taking toward the Taliban in Afghanistan. Obama apparently thinks he can’t win the Islamic State war any more than he can win in Afghanistan -- but he also doesn’t want to lose either one.

So why, you might well ask, would Obama bother to hold a Pentagon news conference about Islamic State if he had little more to say than that the U.S. supports the Iraqi plan to retake Ramadi?

The answer, almost certainly, is that he was trying to do two incompatible things. First, he wanted to make it appear as if the U.S. and Iraq have a coordinated strategy against Islamic State.

Several months ago, the Pentagon wanted the Iraqis to focus on taking back the strategically important city of Mosul. The Iraqis, however, wanted to focus on Ramadi, which isn't as significant militarily, but is politically important as the capital of the Sunni province of Anbar. If Ramadi remains in Islamic State hands, then Iraq increasingly looks like a Shiite state, which harms the legitimacy of the Baghdad government.

Because the Iraqis have to provide the ground forces for an invasion, the negotiation was a bit one-sided. What’s more, if the U.S. withholds air support, the anti-Islamic State efforts are guaranteed to fail, which would also be bad for Obama. Inevitably, the State Department prevailed on Obama to make the best of a bad situation and agree with the Iraqis to try to retake Ramadi first. Confirming this approach at the Pentagon is supposed to signal that the military is now on board, too.

The second, contradictory thing Obama was trying to do Monday was lower expectations for the fight against Islamic State -- and shift blame and responsibility for failure to the Iraqis. Obama made it very clear that success in Iraq is dependent on the availability of reliable local ground forces. So far Iraqi government troops have had little success against Islamic State. Kurdish peshmerga and Shiite militias have done a bit better -- but the U.S. doesn’t want them fighting in Sunni-dominated areas, lest their presence contribute to still deeper sectarian tensions.

By focusing on the importance of a local effort, Obama was saying that the effort against Ramadi may not succeed. And he was also saying that if it does fail, the fault will lie with the Iraqi government troops, not with the U.S. You can see why this message may not exactly inspire confidence that the Iraqis and the U.S. are really on board together.

The shifting of responsibility in the news conference certainly doesn’t signal that the U.S. is committed to a long-term fight against Islamic State, but rather that the continued commitment depends on the Iraqis. So what, then, is the Obama administration’s real strategy?

The tragic truth is that, at present, the strategy appears to be one of containment. Announcing a campaign against Ramadi that depends on Iraqi troops is pretty close to announcing that no one in the U.S. establishment is counting on a meaningful win in the foreseeable future. If Islamic State were to fall in Ramadi, then Mosul would be the next logical target -- but Obama didn’t say so, probably because it would sound like a game plan that might fail to materialize.

What the Obama administration can’t tolerate is for more of Iraq -- namely, parts of Baghdad -- to fall into Islamic State hands. The closest parallel is the situation in Afghanistan, both now and toward the end of the Bush administration.

President George W. Bush stayed in Afghanistan after his administration judged the war there wasn’t winnable -- because he feared that a withdrawal would lead to the fall of Kabul, and the Saigon-like scenario of terrified, miserable flight. For complicated political reasons, Obama then took on the Afghan war as his own project -- and he, too failed. Now the U.S. has announced its intention to keep troops in Afghanistan into 2017 -- because Obama doesn’t want a spectacular defeat on his hands any more than Bush did. If he kicks the can down the road, maybe his successor can negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban.

Baghdad is fast becoming the new Kabul. Obama must keep up the facade of efforts against Islamic State, and of course he’ll be happy if the Iraqis score some victories. But his underlying objective must be to keep the militants on the defensive so they doesn’t mount an attack on the outskirts of Baghdad. If they do, and if government troops were to perform as poorly as they mostly have done, the city could enter a phase of panicked chaos. Shiite militias with Iranian backing would fight back with U.S. air support -- but the city could still end up divided, with Islamic State in control of some Sunni neighborhoods.

That would leave Obama as the president who lost the Iraq War, not the president who ended it. Which leaves you wondering: So long as Islamic State exists, how exactly can any president leave Iraq once and for all?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net