How far can President Barack Obama involve the U.S. in Iraq without taking ownership of a war he opposed and supposedly ended? Iraq finds itself once again on the precipice of civil war, presenting Mr. Obama with a difficult choice: Is the U.S. back in or staying out? In recent weeks, he has appeared as though he is trying to walk a fine line between the two. He earlier announced he was sending 300 military advisers to Iraq (Secretary of State John Kerry has also visited Baghdad), but he cautioned that the U.S. would only take military action "if the situation on the ground requires it."
Since then, several hundred troops have been sent to Baghdad to help protect the American embassy there and help with security and logistics, according to the New York Times, bringing the number of U.S. troops deployed to Iraq to 750.
The decision over what to do is especially tough for Mr. Obama, given his history on the war. Candidate Obama made political hay on his anti-Iraq position in the 2008 primaries against Hillary Clinton, who could not escape her earlier vote for the war despite her subsequent reversal. President Obama made clear he wanted to bring the war to a close, and on Aug. 31, 2010, he declared "the combat mission in Iraq has ended." Iraq quickly moved to the back burner, if not off the stove completely, as Mr. Obama turned to other foreign policy matters, especially Afghanistan.
Our research into politics and war, specifically the costs to leaders of flip-flopping positions, shows that Mr. Obama was able to push Iraq off of his agenda — and out of the political discourse — so quickly because he lacked culpability for the conflict. In the American public's mind, the war in Iraq belonged to George W. Bush, making him responsible for any backlash that might come with pulling out, not Mr. Obama. This lack of culpability gave Mr. Obama considerable freedom in Iraq. Although Mr. Obama maintained that he wanted the withdrawal done responsibly, our research shows that he received less pushback for his actions than John McCain would have faced purely because Mr. Obama was not associated with the original decision to go to war.
Having declared the war "over," new deployments of U.S. forces would saddle Mr. Obama with culpability for the conflict. Blaming Mr. Bush in 2014, even indirectly, for starting the war in 2003 would fall on deaf ears, even among Democrats, since the president now has a clear choice about whether to intervene. The issue is not just flip-flopping (the political costs of which we find are overrated), but culpability. To recast the phrase from earlier in the war, "You try to fix it, you own it."
In a speech last month, the president said action on the part of the U.S. would require a "serious and sincere effort by the Iraqi government." This attempt to distribute blame is reminiscent of his actions on Syria after allegations that Bashar Assad used chemical weapons. Having lost his key international ally (and potential culpability co-bearer) when the British Parliament failed to back Prime Minister David Cameron's call for action, Mr. Obama turned to Congress for authorization. The appeal to Congress represented an attempt on Mr. Obama's part to increase his political flexibility by spreading culpability for action in Syria. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki, even if he were perceived by Americans to be a stronger ally, is not the U.S. Congress, and it is unlikely that the president can use him, or any subsequent Iraqi leader, to shift culpability for American involvement.
To be sure, putting military advisers into a foreign country is not the same as deploying U.S. forces en masse, as Mr. Bush did in 2003. But the fact that Mr. Obama is actively choosing to involve U.S. personnel, while keeping the door open to military force at a later point, puts him risk for becoming culpable should the conflict escalate further. Furthermore, Mr. Obama's previous opposition to a war he declared over means the reaction to any military action will be larger in Iraq than if it were done elsewhere.
The president is trying to avoid responsibility for the conflict while still doing enough to quell criticism from the hawks at home who continue to emphasize the potential threat ISIS posses to American interests. This is a fine and difficult line to follow. History has shown, most notably in the case of Vietnam, that conflicts follow their own course, and that military advisers are often the first step down a long, steep slippery slope into further entanglements.