As the White House debates whether to strike ISIS inside Iraq, a Washington think tank deeply connected to the Obama administration is recommending that the United States start getting ready now for U.S. air strikes.
A new report by the Center for American Progress, the left-leaning policy organization that maintains close ties to the White House, says the U.S. should “prepare for limited counterterrorism operations against ISIS, including possible air strikes.” That is just one of the steps CAP is recommending to help keep Iraq from crumbling and fight the scourge of ISIS and other extremist groups festering in Iraq and Syria.
Several sources at Washington policy organizations told The Daily Beast that top administration officials have been calling around Washington think tanks for days to solicit advice and consultation on the substantive options for responding to the ever-deepening crisis in Iraq.
Few think tanks are more closely aligned with the Obama administration than CAP. The think tank was founded by John Podesta, a top adviser to President Obama. Several former Obama administration officials—including Neera Tanden, a former top White House and campaign adviser, Vikram Singh, a former State Department and Pentagon official, and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers—are now affiliated with CAP.
The CAP report presents elaborate arguments regarding the justifications for potential U.S. military action in Iraq, the conditions under which it should be considered, and the limits of such a mission. Such arguments could later be adopted by the Obama administration for defending a policy of using American military power inside Iraq, if that is the decision they ultimately make.
“Quite clearly this blitzkrieg by ISIS should be a wakeup call for the Iraqi government, for the region, and for U.S. policy,” CAP Senior Fellow Brian Katulis, one of the report’s authors, told The Daily Beast. “The administration is very judiciously weighing a range of options in a dynamic situation. This is largely our own analysis. We tried to strike the right balance.”
The Obama administration wants to provide military aid to the Iraqi government, but only if they make progress toward Shia-Sunni reconciliation. Meanwhile, Iran is offering Iraq everything and anything they need to fight ISIS with no strings attached.
The White House announced Monday the U.S. had moved 270 military personnel into Iraq, for missions focused on the protection of the U.S. embassy and personnel. Any future air strikes would require reliable intelligence on the ground, therefore some prepositioning of forces is needed in advance, according to CAP.
But air strikes would not be a complete solution to the ISIS problem, CAP warns. They would only be useful for degrading the extremist group while other political and diplomatic measures were taken to fix Iraq’s sectarian schism. The CAP report compares such a mission to the U.S. no-fly zones over Iraq during the Clinton and Bush administrations, known as Operation Northern Watch. Katulis said the administration must set strict limits on the American use of force inside Iraq, if they are deemed necessary.
“The nature of the strikes shouldn’t be broad and open ended, it should be targeted, precise, and principled,” he said. “There is no win or lose in this type of conflict. The focus should be to degrade the capacity of ISIS and other groups that threaten the Iraqi state and U.S. national security.”
CAP’s recommendation is also significant also because CAP advocated for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq as far back as 2005. Back then, the U.S. needed to incentivize the Iraqi government to take responsibility for its own affairs, CAP argues, but now Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed in that task.
“The withdrawal of U.S. combat troops was necessary [then] to create an incentive for Iraqis to take control of their own affairs: Iraq had become dependent on an endless supply of American ground troops for its security,” the report states. “The failure of Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to build an inclusive political system has enabled the current startling advances of militants across Iraq led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.”
Even after potential air strikes in Iraq, ISIS would still be untouchable in Syria, so CAP recommends increasing the training and equipping of the moderate Syrian armed rebels, something the administration has resisted for three years. Money for that should come from the new $5 billion counterterrorism fund Obama announced in his West Point speech this month, the report states. Congress may not give Obama those funds any time soon.
“The United States should not undertake military action lightly and should be wary of unintended consequences. But not all military action is the same,” the report states. “Ground troops or invasions to control a country are very different from limited air strikes or targeted assistance to help push back terrorist extremists. Extremist terrorist groups controlling large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria from which they could ultimately attack American interests or allies are worthy of a limited, effective response, including limited air strikes.”