How long will American airstrikes pummel fighters belonging to the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)? The White House said Friday that the mission is open-ended but repeatedly promised that it will not be “prolonged.”
What does that mean? It means that President Obama wants the maximum flexibility for tackling a dangerous threat to Iraq’s viability while confronting critics in the U.S. Congress and a war-weary U.S. public.
“The president has not laid out a specific end date,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. “We’re going to sort of take this approach in which those kinds of decisions are evaluated regularly and are driven by the security situation on the ground, both as it relates to the safety and security of American personnel but also as it relates to supporting the ongoing efforts of both Kurdish security forces and Iraqi security forces.”
Earnest, who underlined that Obama campaigned in 2008 on ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq, said at least seven times on Friday that the president would not dig the country into a “prolonged” conflict.
Prodded by one reporter to explain how an open-ended engagement could also not be “prolonged,” Earnest replied: “There are two principles at stake here, and you are insightful to notice the tension between the two.”
“I’m not in the position to offer up a specific date, but I am able to offer a specific presidential commitment that a prolonged military conflict that includes U.S. involvement is not on the table there,” the spokesman said.
Earnest said the administration would follow the 1973 War Powers act in terms of keeping Congress updated about American military deployments — but declined to say the same about the law’s requirement that presidents seek congressional authority for deployments that run more than 60 days.
“The only thing I can speak to right now is our — this administration’s — commitment to complying with the notification requirements of the War Powers Act,” he said.
Obama said Thursday that his chief goals in the latest round of airstrikes are to safeguard American personnel in Irbil and, separately, to help Kurdish fighters lift the siege of Sinjar Mountain, where ISIL fighters have trapped thousands of religious minority Iraqis who follow the Yezidi faith. He also wants to give Kurdish peshmerga fighters some breathing space from the ISIL onslaught.
The White House’s long-term goals are a bit fuzzy. Obama has repeatedly said he wants Iraq to form a government that is more inclusive of Sunni Muslims. The current government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has used strong-arm tactics against Sunnis, deepening their resentment of Baghdad. ISIL, sometimes known as ISIS, is a chiefly Sunni movement.
While Obama has repeatedly vowed to wipe out al-Qaida, another Sunni extremist group, Earnest declined to say the same about ISIL.
Asked whether Obama can live with ISIL holding any stretch of territory, whether carved out of Iraq or the group’s home base in Syria, Earnest suggested that could be up to Iraq’s government.
But “it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where you would have a stable Iraq with a security situation that’s under control where ISIL is freely operating in the countryside,” he said.
“It’s only the Iraqis who can confront this problem,” he said. “The United States stands ready and has already demonstrated a willingness to support them as they do so, but ultimately this is a problem for Iraq to solve.”