Obama's window dressing in Iraq

There's no military solution to Iraq's problems.

President Barack Obama's announcement last week that he will send an additional 450 U.S. troops to Iraq to train and assist the Iraqi Army in its battle against the self-proclaimed Islamic State appears to be a futile gesture. The chances that a few hundred more American advisers can turn the situation around are remote unless Iraqi leaders can get their act together and unify the country against ISIS. Until that happens, sending more U.S. troops only serves as window dressing for a continued U.S. withdrawal from the region.

After years of U.S. effort and billions of dollars spent training and equipping the Iraqi security forces, only to see them suffer a humiliating setback when Islamic State fighters captured the city of Ramadi last month, it's clear the U.S. strategy isn't working. Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition haven't stopped ISIS advances on the ground, and U.S. commanders openly admit that plans to retake the major Iraqi city of Mosul, which fell to the insurgents last summer, are now on hold indefinitely. There's no telling how long the current military stalemate will last, but ISIS clearly has the advantage.

The White House tacitly acknowledged that reality the day after Mr. Obama announced the new troop deployment by suggesting the president is willing to consider expanding the U.S. military footprint in Iraq to more effectively counter the ISIS threat. The plan would involve constructing a network of bases around the country — called lilypads — where U.S. advisers could help coordinate the Iraqi Army's offensive against ISIS, with possibly more troops to follow. But officials were careful to stress that no U.S. military personnel would be engaged in the front-line fighting and that most would remain on their bases.

Mr. Obama is well aware that the American public wants to steer clear of involvement in another messy Middle East conflict and that it is leery of anything that looks like a slippery slope to war. He's also been careful to make any further U.S. military commitment contingent on Iraqi leaders' willingness to reach out to Iraq's Sunni Muslim community, which up to now has felt marginalized and discriminated against by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and by the Iranian-backed Shiite militias supporting it. They have been accused of committing war crimes against Sunni civilians.

Unless the Sunni tribes can be convinced to take up arms against ISIS, there's little hope the government can defeat the insurgency. As one observer put it last week, why would Sunni militiamen volunteer to fight the Sunni insurgents of ISIS in order to defend a Shiite-led government they both despise?

President Obama may be trying to make the best of an admittedly awful dilemma in which, as he has said many times, there are no good military options. Some current and former U.S. military officials have called for dramatically increasing the number of American-led airstrikes against ISIS positions in areas held by the insurgents. But that comes with its own risks of increased civilian casualties that would only further alienate Sunnis from the government in Baghdad. And there's no guarantee that airstrikes alone would make much difference if Iraqi security forces are unable to occupy and hold territory on the ground.

Iraq's problems are fundamentally political in nature, and it will take a political settlement to end the country's sectarian civil war. But whether Iraqi leaders can summon the political will needed forge a unified country that respects the rights of all its ethnic, religious and sectarian factions is something only they can decide. Unless they choose political reconciliation, the president's cautiously incremental strategy may be the most the U.S. can do to encourage that process. In the end we can't be more willing to defend Iraq than the Iraqis themselves are.

We are first to admit that there is no easy solution here, but the American public is being ill served by any suggestion that what Mr. Obama is doing will make the slightest difference. Sending a few hundred troops merely gives the impression that he is taking action while really just kicking the can down the road for the next American president to contend with.

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