On August 7th, Barack Obama made a statement concerning the crisis in Iraq in which he announced “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel, and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.” Although there are calls for ground troops, President Obama has excluded this option as ground troops might mean a new long term presence in the country. In addition to about 455 U.S. security forces and 100 military personnel working in the Office of Security Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, 130 troops have been sent in order to provide humanitarian assistance and assess the situation, 160 in a pair of operations centers — one in Irbil and one in Baghdad — working with Iraqi security forces.
Domestic as well as geopolitical reasons can be identified for Obama’s reluctance to send ground troops in Iraq.
A 2013 study by the Watson Institute showed that the 2003 Iraq war cost the USA $1.71 trillion with $490 billion in benefits for war veterans. A ground intervention would call for additional public spending for a war that had presumably ended in 2011 after the US troops’ withdrawal. Although US economy has shrunk in recent years, 2014 has been a year of recovery. Reallocation of resources for resuming US ground operations in Iraq would severely stall this process and induce further dwindling of the economy.
One of Barack Obama’s pre-election assets for 2008 and 2012, was his promise to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and despite implications for those countries, he partially achieved it. A recent poll by the Washington Post has shown the US public opposes further involvement in foreign conflicts. If the US re-engages in Iraq with ground operations, the government would have to deal with vast public criticism that could topple his administration in the upcoming 2016 elections.
Although the US has been criticized for lacking a concrete strategy in Iraq, Barack Obama remains true to his smart power doctrine, which he embraced in both terms. If someone looks at Obama’s foreign policy the past years, it has become clear the US president prefers to engage in diplomacy by embracing cooperation with other states than full-blown interventions. A complete non-interventionist policy would only harm the USA’s Cold War legacy. Thus Barack Obama chose to engage in limited and fast interventions that would both keep the USA on the fore of international politics and would allow the US president to follow his foreign policy doctrine.
Bluntly speaking, there are other foreign policy priorities. Russia and Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, and Iran are at the top of the list.
The US president has found himself in the middle of the Russia-EU antagonism concerning Ukraine. Yet again, as Europe seems helpless handling Russia, the US has stepped creating a Cold War climate. If the US budges now, it would seem as if its “main enemy” wins this war of sanctions.
Obama also hoped he would be the first president to end the Palestinian conflict. Despite his opening to the Arab world, and John Kerry’s efforts to revive the Arab-Israeli peace talks, all efforts fell on deaf ears, as a solution for Gaza should have been prioritised and carefully planned. Regardless, the current administration does not wish to leave the situation in a worse state than it was before.
Finally, this might be the first time since the Islamic Revolution that room for talks between USA and Iran has opened. Hassan Rouhani seems more moderate than his predecessor Ahmadinejad and the Obama administration need to take advantage of this. Despite the fact that this opening would not mean, at least in the near future, that Iran and the US would be allies, it would at least not risk another diplomatic incident blowing up on its face.
Barack Obama would be naïve to risk all those open issues in order to proceed to yet another intervention in Iraq.
A version of this article appeared at Athens Views, Issue 55, a weekly newspaper in collaboaration with The GW Post.