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International Politics

Is Obama Putting Boots on the Ground In Iraq?


The NATO summit in Cardiff on the 4th and 5th of September dealt with two issues: the return of an aggressive Russia and how to deal with it; and the threat posed by the emergence of the Islamic State, a barbarous band of murdering Sunni extremists that have taken over large swathes of Iraq and Syria. Formerly an Al Qaeda affiliate, this splinter group has turned from pure terrorism to insurgency and now conventional warfare. Not only that: the group has proven remarkably successful at organizing a state-like apparatus: basic services, taxation, policing, distribution of food and medicines, and schooling. Driven by the tribal and sectarian dynamics in Iraq and Syria, these fighters have declared a new Caliphate and demanded the allegiance of all Muslims everywhere. And while they are not about to get that allegiance, they nevertheless rule a population of 8 million more or less unwilling citizens and pose a serious enough threat to the regional balance of power that even viscerally hostile regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia have united in opposition to them.

The President took advantage of the summit to successfully organized 10 key NATO partners, as well as regional powers, to combat the threat of ISIS. This may seem strange, given that ISIS neither borders the North Atlantic nor poses an immediate security threat to Europe. They do border Turkey, a key NATO ally, but Turkey didn’t request the intervention. The reality is that the US needed the international political cover: we will continue to run the air campaign and supply the Kurdish peshmerga with some limited logistical support from the NATO allies; while Iran arms and reinforces the Iraqi Army and Shiite militias and the Gulf States arm and reinforce the “moderate” Sunni militias in Syria. This is an incredibly complex and delicate balancing act: all of these groups hate and distrust each other and the United States. Only the fear of black flags and beheadings is uniting them in a rogue’s alliance against the Islamic State.

On Wednesday September 10th the President finally addressed the nation[1] and outlined both the ISIS menace and the coordinated response to the same. That was nice of him to do, given that we’d been bombing ISIS for a few weeks already. It also gave him the opportunity to yet again emphasize the pernicious doctrine that the President can do whatever he likes with the military without the approval of Congress, a doctrine which is utterly unconstitutional and wholly injurious to our democracy. During this speech, he promised not to put American boots on the ground, and that makes sense: the presence of sizable US forces is likely to stir the hornet’s nest rather than calm it down. The President is also undoubtedly loath to reverse his “legacy” of ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by a large-scale deployment. It all sounds comfortable enough: the American people don’t mind bombing ISIS from a distance, but certainly don’t want a messy ground war.

Yet even before the announcement, the President had already sent additional troops to Iraq. In addition to the approximately 500 troops stationed there for embassy and personnel protection, the State Department and Defense requested an additional 350 soldiers to expand the security coverage to include the airfields we were launching our aircraft from[2]. Now there are about 1,000 US combat troops in a purely non-combat role; because of course, this President will never “call upon … American boys to do the job that Iraqi boys should do.”[3] That is without counting the unknown number of “contractors” – once known more simply as mercenaries – who are undoubtedly operating in Iraq in place of those American soldiers that we are determined not to send[4].

One would think that by now America, and in particular this President, would have learned not to commit the classic blunder: never get involved in a land war in Asia. And yet the same day as the President promised the nation “no boots on the ground”, Secretary of State Kerry was hemming and hawing in Baghdad, stating that the US wouldn’t deploy troops “unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changes.” [5] That is a very large hedge.

The President seems to be hedging quite a bit, if recent naval movements are any indication. The US always keeps a Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and an Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG) in the Persian Gulf – Arabian Sea area as a check on Iran and to reassure our Gulf State “allies”. Currently, the carrier group is centered around the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN-77) while the ARG is centered on the USS Bataan (LHD-5). This is a very substantial force: each Nimitz-class supercarrier carries 90 fixed wing aircraft capable of delivering a wide range of conventional and nuclear munitions, while the USS Bataan carries the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) consisting of 2,000 of America’s finest, plus their vehicles, 4 transport and 4 attack helicopters and 6 Harrier fighter-attack aircraft.


In addition to this force, the USS Makin Island (LDH-8) has entered the Indian Ocean with the 11th MEU and is steaming towards the Gulf. The USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), another Nimitz-class carrier has finished carrier qualification off the coast of California and is now steaming across the Pacific with the same destination. Finally, the USS George Washington (CVN-73) and USS Peleliu (LHA-5) have left Japan and are in the Western Pacific.

USN deployment 29 Aug

USN deployment 12 Sep

In other words, President Obama will have 2 carrier battle groups with 180 aircraft and 2 Marine Expeditionary Units with 4,000 Marines in close proximity to Iraq, with another CSG and ARG already at sea and within a few days steaming.

These might be wholly precautionary measures; they might even be routine deployments meant to relieve the USS George H.W. Bush and USS Bataan so they can return to port. But the pieces are in place for a sizeable US intervention in Iraq just in case “something very, very dramatic changes”.


Sources and Notes:

[1] Lucy Wescott, “Obama: More Airstrikes and Troops to Iraq to Defeat Islamic State,” Newsweek, 11 September 2014

[2] William M. Welch, “U.S. sending 350 more troops to Iraq,” USA Today, 03 September 2014

[3] Lyndon B. Johnson, promising not to send combat troops to Vietnam

[4] Seth Robson, “In place of ‘boots on the ground,’ US seeks contractors for Iraq,” Stars and Stripes, 07 September 2014

[5] Roy Gutman, “Kerry: U.S. troops might deploy to Iraq if ‘something very dramatic changes’”, Miami Herald, 10 September 2014

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