TIME Military

U.S. No Longer Waging a Time-Share War

Peshmerga forces enter Makhmur
Kurdish Peshmerga forces regained some territory in northern Iraq on Sunday. Ensar Ozdemir / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Unlike Obama's earlier military orders, his Iraq plan lacks a deadline

President Obama was eager to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, is eager to pull them out of Afghanistan, and refused to put them into Libya and Syria. His reticence is justifiably rooted in opposition at home to any more ground combat following more than a decade of war after 9/11.

But over the weekend, he warned that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s threat to Kurdish city of Erbil in northern Iraq warranted U.S. military airstrikes, and that they could continue over a sustained period of time. “I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” he said Saturday. “This is going to take some time.” On Sunday, Kurdish forces reportedly ousted ISIS fighters from a pair of border towns 20 miles from Erbil as U.S. warplanes conducted a third consecutive day of attacks on ISIS forces.

Changes in waging war have proliferated since the so-called non-state actors known as al-Qaeda brought down the World Trade Center towers, attacked the Pentagon and sent United Flight 93 diving into a Pennsylvania field. The foe is elusive, metamorphosing from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS, as the jihadist leaders wage battle among themselves for supremacy.

Any conflict that begins, as the latest Iraq venture did, with humanitarian airdrops to thousands of dehydrated and hungry Yazidis in and around Mount Sinjar makes for a different kind of war.

Obama said he acted because of concerns for the safety of U.S. military advisers and consular officials in Erbil, threatened by an ISIS advances over the past week. The advisers are there, and in Baghdad, to plot how the U.S. can aid the Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki in its battle against ISIS. Without such a U.S. stake in Libya or Syria, he has felt no need to take military action there.

But the flames now burning around the Middle East are part of a larger conflagration, fueled by crumbling autocracies and religious zealots, who are recruiting unemployed young men eager to belong to something bigger than themselves.

The U.S. and other Western nations essentially are biding their time, hoping such fires will eventually die out with minimal involvement by them. That could happen.

But if ISIS succeeds in establishing anything approximating a real state straddling the Syrian-Iraq border, it will become a new launching pad for attacks against the U.S. and its interests, just like in Taliban-led Afghanistan.

“Every day that goes by, ISIS builds up this caliphate and it becomes a direct threat to the United States of America,” Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House subcommittee on counter-terrorism, told NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “They are more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11.”

Obama and his successor know that they cannot allow a jihadist-run state, pledged to killing “infidels,” in the heart of the Middle East.

“I would be rushing equipment to Erbil,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN Sunday. “I would be launching airstrikes, not only in Iraq but in Syria against ISIS.”

In a prescient comment that turned out to be correct, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned in 2003 that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be “a long, hard slog.” Americans tired of both, in part because of the Bush Administration’s ambitious, costly and unrealized plans for remaking both nations.

But what we’re seeing now is a new kind of war, and it requires a new kind of leadership.

Iraq, for its part, needs a leader who can gather its warring factions under one roof and turn it into a functioning 21st Century state.

If such a leader fails to materialize, Iraq will continue its slow-motion suicide.

Then it will take a U.S. leader who is willing to detail the possible risks of continued half-hearted actions—what the New York Times called “a Military Middle Road” in a Sunday headline—in the region. He—or she—will have to fashion a new kind of calibrated, and sustained, warfare that a democracy can support.

TIME National Security

Experts Warn of Terrorism Blowback From Iraq Air Strikes

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters look on as smoke billows from the town Makhmur, about 175 miles north of Baghdad, during clashes with ISIS militants on August 9, 2014 Safin Hamed—AFP/Getty Images

ISIS has long threatened America openly — will Obama's strikes inspire it to act?

The American air strikes against a militant group in Iraq could motivate the fighters to retaliate with terrorist attacks against U.S. civilians, experts warn.

President Barack Obama’s air strikes against militants from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) “could increase the likelihood that ISIS or somebody inspired by ISIS, would strike against the homeland,” says Seth Jones, a terrorism expert with Rand Corp.

ISIS has long threatened America openly. In June the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warned Americans that “soon enough, you will be in direct confrontation [with us].” Last week a spokesman for the group vowed that “we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.”

Despite that bombastic rhetoric, ISIS has thus far been consumed with its fights in Iraq and Syria, and with capturing territory to form an Islamic caliphate. But counterterrorism officials worry that the fanatical group could now place a higher priority on attacking Americans. Jihadists in online forums and on Twitter are already calling for terrorist attacks in response to Obama’s intervention in Iraq.

The prospect of blowback was on the mind of senior officials even before Obama approved air strikes last week.

“That’s one of the downsides of U.S. involvement,” former deputy CIA director Michael Morell told CBS News in June. “The more we visibly get involved in helping the [Iraqi] government fight these guys, the more we become a target.”

A U.S. intelligence official would not say whether the threat level has escalated, saying the U.S. continues to monitor the known ISIS threat. “ISIS has previously stated its willingness to strike targets outside of the region and the [intelligence community] is working in close coordination with our allies to track these threats,” says Brian Hale, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

In July, Brett McGurk, the top State Department official for Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the 30 to 50 suicide bombers per month deployed in Syria and Iraq by ISIS “are increasingly Western passport holders,” and that “it is a matter of time before these suicide bombers are directed elsewhere.”

Several experts agreed that attacking ISIS will make the group more eager to strike back against America, but said the threat is hard to calculate — and no reason to avoid taking on the group.

“U.S. strikes against ISIS may well raise that group’s interest in carrying out terrorist attacks against U.S. targets,” says Daniel Benjamin, a former top State Department counterterrorism official now at Dartmouth College. “But the significance of that shouldn’t be overstated.”

Benjamin questions whether the ISIS threat has increased significantly, given its previously known desire to kill Americans. Regardless, he adds: “We can’t let our policies be held hostage by this concern.”

Obama’s strikes this month mark the first direct U.S. attacks on ISIS in its current form. But the U.S. military did battle with the group’s prior incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, during the U.S. occupation of that country in the mid-2000s. AQI never found a way to hit Americans beyond the Iraq battlefield.

But since splitting with al-Qaeda, broadening its ambition and declaring itself ISIS — and, more recently, the Islamic State — the group has attracted Westerners whose passports could grant them easy entry to Europe and the U.S.

“What is concerning, and which makes this situation different,” warns Jones of Rand Corp., is that large complement of Western fighters, which AQI did not posses. “The connections to this battlefield from the West are stronger than they were a decade ago.”

Jones says there’s precedent for the U.S. drawing the attention of a regionally focused terrorist group by targeting its ranks. The attempted 2010 Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad, was trained and directed to strike the U.S. by the Pakistani Taliban, which sought revenge for American drone strikes against the group’s leadership.

At least one expert on Sunni radical groups doubts that Obama’s strikes make Americans any less safe, however.

“I don’t think this changes [ISIS's] calculus,” says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They are likely planning attacks whether the U.S. conducts targeted air strikes or not. We shouldn’t have reactionary policy when it comes to [ISIS] anyway — why would we let them continue to grow just because they aren’t attacking us now?”

“In my opinion,” Zelin says, “we should destroy them as soon as possible.”


Live: Obama Speaks About Iraq

President Barack Obama is set to deliver a statement on Iraq from the White House at 10:25 a.m. ET Saturday. Watch live here.


President Obama Explains Why The U.S. Is Bombing ISIS

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., August 7, 2014. Saul Loeb—AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has a "strategic interest" in defending Iraq against extremists, the President told the New York Times

As the United States is ramping up a bombing campaign against an extremist militant group in Iraq, President Barack Obama said in an interview with the New York Times published late Friday that the U.S. has a strategic interest in preventing the group from gaining a foothold in northern Iraq.

While Obama said the U.S. can’t just be “the Iraqi air force,” he argued it needs to “bolster” Iraqi leadership, and prevent Sunni extremists from forming a state through Syria and Iraq under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“We do have a strategic interest in pushing back” ISIS, the President said in an interview with Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq, but we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.”

Moreover, the President said, the U.S. has a moral obligation in Iraq to defend populations that face slaughter at the hands of ISIS fighters, including the Yazidi minority group and Iraqi Kurds, both of whom are threatened by ISIS’ advance.

“When you have a unique circumstance in which genocide is threatened, and a country is willing to have us in there, you have a strong international consensus that these people need to be protected and we have a capacity to do so, then we have an obligation to do so,” the President said.

However, Obama argued the U.S. has to act as a catalyst for Iraq’s own leaders to handle the crisis themselves.

“[We] do think it’s important to make sure that that space is protected, but, more broadly, what I’ve indicated is that I don’t want to be in the business of being the Iraqi air force,” the President said. “I don’t want to get in the business for that matter of being the Kurdish air force, in the absence of a commitment of the people on the ground to get their act together and do what’s necessary politically to start protecting themselves and to push back against [ISIS].”



U.S. Continues Airstrikes in Northern Iraq

Air assault and humanitarian supply drops for displace Iraqis continued over the weekend

Updated Aug. 10, 10:47 a.m. ET

The Pentagon continued Saturday to direct airstrikes against Iraqi militants and carry out supply drops for vulnerable refugees after President Barack Obama said he doesn’t have an end date in mind for American aerial involvement in Iraq.

“I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks,” Obama told reporters before departing Washington for a family vacation. “This is going to take some time.”

The U.S. military continued to attack militant targets on Sunday, using both fighters and drones to help defend Kurdish forces near Irbil. Three Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) trucks and a mortar position were destroyed in overnight raids.

Obama said that airstrikes, which began Friday, have destroyed weapons that would have been used by ISIS to continue its offensive into northern Iraq. He also announced that France and the United Kingdom have agreed to help provide humanitarian assistance to tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar surrounded by ISIS fighters.

“We feel confident we can prevent ISIL from going up the mountain and slaughtering people who are there,” Obama said, using an alternative acronym for the militant group. He added that the next step will be securing the refugees a path to safety.

Obama’s statement came hours before U.S. forces conducted a third successful airdrop involving one C-17 and two C-130 cargo aircraft dropping a total of 72 bundles of supplies, including food and water for thousands of citizens on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar. The civilians, largely ethnic Yazidi, sought shelter on the mountain as Kurdish forces have suffered setbacks at the hands of the Islamist militant group. The supply drop included 3,804 gallons of drinking water and 16,128 ready-to-eat meals.

“To date, in coordination with the government of Iraq, U.S. military aircraft have delivered more than 52,000 meals and more than 10,600 gallons of fresh drinking water, providing much-needed aid to the displaced Yazidis, who urgently require emergency assistance,” the Pentagon said in a statement. American officials said the drops will continue as long as there is a humanitarian need, adding they expect that need to continue for some time.

Months after suggesting the group was “JV” compared to core al Qaeda, Obama acknowledged Saturday that ISIS had caught American intelligence officials and lawmakers flat-footed. “I think that there is no doubt that their advance, their movement has been more rapid than the intelligence estimates and the expectations of policymakers,” he said.

Obama said a long-term solution to the crisis requires new political leadership on the part of the Iraqi government, calling on leaders there to form “an inclusive government” and for all ethnic groups to join together to oppose ISIS. “This is going to be a long-term project,” he said.

The president also defended his administration from critics who argue he should have American ground forces in Iraq. “As if this was my decision,” Obama protested. He said “the reason we did not have a follow-on force in Iraq is a majority of Iraqis did not want our troops there.”

The third humanitarian airdrop accompanied four airstrike missions carried out by U.S. fighters and remotely piolted aircraft on ISIS forces threatening the Yazidis, destroying four armored armored personal carriers and an armed truck.

The United States’ military interest in Iraq extends to protecting American military personnel and civilians in the Kurdish city of Erbil, which is the location of a U.S. consulate. President Barack Obama authorized both the humanitarian and military operations Thursday night.

“We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad,” Obama said Thursday in a primetime statement from the White House. But Obama ruled out any U.S. ground forces becoming involved in the battle against ISIS. “American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq,” he said. Obama also told The New York Times in an interview posted late Friday that the U.S. would not become “the Iraqi air force,” while arguing the U.S. has a “strategic interest in pushing back” against the Islamist group.

Hundreds of American troops are already in Iraq, advising Iraqi security forces and protecting U.S. facilities.

On Friday, U.S. Central Command released footage of the first humanitarian airdrop carried out Thursday night:

U.S. Central Command also released video footage of two of the airstrikes carried out Friday:


With reporting by Sam Frizell

TIME foreign affairs

Iraq War Soldier 10 Years Later: What Was It All For?

Clashes between Kurdish pershmergas and ISIL
Kurdish peshmerga fighters load missile launcher during the clashes with the army groups led by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Mosul, Iraq on 8 August, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

It has been almost a full decade since I’ve come back and I still don’t have an answer

The Iraq War — what was it good for? Absolutely nothing? That’s yet to be seen. As an Operation Iraqi Freedom combat veteran who spent most of his 2003–04 deployment on the ground in Iraq as an infantryman, I think about such things. Especially since I was with a combat unit assigned to win hearts and minds while “punishing the deserving” in Mosul.

When reports first started coming out of Iraq that the black-flag-waving ISIS had completely taken over my unit’s old stomping grounds, my first thoughts were with the people of Mosul and all those who worked alongside us. Our interpreters — many of whom would cover their faces with scarves or baseball hats — risked their lives coming out on missions with us to their neighborhoods. There was also a high turnover rate. Many would stop showing up, not because they didn’t feel like it or didn’t like the job but because they received death threats or, worse, were murdered.

I never got her name, but there was one Iraqi interpreter I think about more now than ever. She always arrived to work with a warm smile and whatever book she was reading, always in English. One day we struck up a conversation in English, and from there we formed a bit of a friendship.

When I’d catch her sitting by herself and reading, I’d hit her up for free Arabic lessons. She always happily obliged. We’d talk about politics, Iraqi culture, books and Iraqi customs.

She taught English at the university level before the war. When she first heard rumors that the Americans were going to invade Iraq, she prayed and prayed that we would. She was convinced that Iraq would be better off without Saddam Hussein ruling it and that U.S. forces would do a lot of good for her country. At the time, I believed the same. She even joked that if the Americans weren’t going to come, she would fly to the White House and beg George W. Bush to “please invade Iraq.”

When this happened, her prayers seemed to be answered. She quit her job teaching English and became an interpreter for us.

One day, I stopped seeing her around the base. Some of the other interpreters told me “they” found out she was working with the Americans, so they murdered her sister.

So she quit.

Since being discharged from the military shortly after I returned in 2004, many have asked me, “Was it worth it?” I think of my Iraqi friend who always smiled and carried books with her everywhere she went and took time out of her day to teach me Arabic, and I wonder if she still thinks it was worth it. My mind floods with memories of the Iraqis in Mosul who did think it was worth it for us to be there, as well as forces clad in black and pointing their AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades at us while we were trying to complete our objectives: to “eliminate the enemy that continues to hinder progress for the Iraqi people,” “help Iraq restore its independence” and “remain in Iraq until our mission is complete.”

While I was in Iraq, I figured I’d have the rest of my life (if I came home) to think long and hard about the bigger questions like whether our fight was worth it, so why waste my time over there doing so when we still had a mission to complete? It has been almost 10 years, a full decade, since I’ve come back from Iraq, and I still don’t have an answer.

Ultimately, I think, that question would be best answered by an Iraqi. It’s their war now, and they know what they’re fighting for a hell of a lot more than I ever could.

The mission in Iraq appears to be far from complete, and I’m sure there are plenty of Iraqis right now praying for somebody, anybody, to invade their country or at least bomb it.

Buzzell is a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the author of two books, My War: Killing Time in Iraq and Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey

TIME faith

ISIS Is Ignoring Islam’s Teachings on Yazidis and Christians

Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province
Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province, Aug. 4, 2014 Ari Jalal—Reuters

Here's what the Prophet and the Quran really say about how to treat the two faith groups

The news coming out of Iraq is really devastating. The violent extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) continues to take over major parts of Iraq, brutally killing and oppressing any and all who come in their way. The worst of ISIS has been unleashed on Shi‘ite Muslims, Christians and the Yazidis with hundreds of thousands killed and forced to flee.

The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is as dangerous as he is delusional. In a sermon that he gave several weeks ago, the ISIS leader declared himself as the new “Caliph” of Muslims worldwide. In the sermon he attempted to reflect the personality of Islam’s first Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Sadiq, in asking those gathered to help him when he is right and correct him when he is wrong and to only obey him so long as he obeys God and the Messenger. But, the Quran warns its readers to not be swayed by charismatic figures who, in reality, only spread evil in the world:

“Now, there is a kind of man whose views on the life of this world may please thee greatly, and [the more so as] he cites God as witness to what is in his heart and is, moreover, exceedingly skillful in argument. But whenever he prevails, he goes about the earth spreading corruption and destroying property and progeny [even though] God does not like corruption. And whenever he is told, ‘Be conscious of God,’ his false pride drives him into [even greater] sin …” (2:204–2:206).

So, I join the chorus of Muslims worldwide, Sunnis and Shi‘ites, who oppose al-Baghdadi and ISIS as a whole. The killing and oppression of innocent people and the destruction of land and property is completely antithetical to Islam’s normative teachings. It’s as pure and as simple as that.

Ironically, when the Quran allows (and, sometimes, even encourages) Muslims to engage in just fighting and resistance, it is in order to deter those who wage wars without just cause and those who engage in religious persecution — exact crimes that the ISIS is engaging in Iraq today:

“Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged … those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, ‘Our Sustainer is God!’ For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques — in which God’s name is abundantly extolled would surely have been destroyed …” (22:39–22:40)

The Yazidis are an ancient community that have been in Iraq for centuries. Historically the Yazidis follow Zoroastrianism and other ancient Mesopotamian religions. Throughout recent history the Yazidis have been oppressed and their religion largely misunderstood as Satan worship (which it is not). The violence and suffering that ISIS has inflicted upon the Yazidis is heart wrenching. There is, arguably, one reference to the ancient religion of the Yazidis (referred to as Magians) in the Quran in which it simply says, “Verily, as for those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], and those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and the Christians, and the Magians [on the one hand,] and those who are bent on ascribing divinity to aught but God, [on the other,] verily, God will decide between them on Resurrection Day: for, behold, God is witness unto everything” (22:17). ISIS would do well to, truly, let God decide rather than act as tyrannical judges and lords over the Yazidis and others.

ISIS is also reportedly seeking to expel Christians from their homeland of Iraq where Christians have lived since almost the beginning of their history. Christians in Iraq are considered to be one of the oldest continuous surviving Christian communities in the world. Christians in Iraq have survived, and at times even thrived, alongside Muslims over the past 1,400 years. ISIS insistence that Christians either “convert, leave or die” defies the Quranic command: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).

ISIS has also given Christians another option if they want to remain in Iraq: to pay jizya. Jizya is a tax that Muslim empires imposed upon non-Muslim constituents in return for military exemption, protection against persecution and considerable religious freedoms. Most Muslim countries today no longer impose jizya on non-Muslims. The change in political order, rise of nation states and assumptions of citizenship today render certain medieval systems incongruent with modern realities and sensibilities. The Quran makes a reference to the jizya system (9:29), but its application is vague and it can very well be argued that such an imposition was only intended to manage troublesome and treacherous religious minorities. This is all to say that ISIS has no basis whatsoever to force Christians in Iraq to pay the jizya let alone the fact that they cannot even be considered a legitimate government by any stretch of the imagination and, therefore, cannot rightfully impose any taxes on anyone.

The strongest argument against ISIS persecution of Christians is the fact that such actions are in direct violation of the Prophet Muhammad’s own treaties with Christians in which he guarantees the protection of religious freedom and other rights:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.

No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

(The original letter is now in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.)

This and many similar covenants between the Prophet Muhammad and Christian communities are well documented and translated by John Andrew Morrow in his book, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad With the Christians of the World. These covenants are a determining proof, among other proofs, that what ISIS is engaged in right now in Iraq is completely unlawful (haram) and violates Islamic teachings in every way.

To ISIS or anyone who sympathizes with them, know that Islam believes in a God of mercy, a scripture of mercy and a Prophet sent as a mercy to all the worlds. It is time to abandon persecution and violence, murder and mayhem. The enemy you seek to fight is within you. The pursuit of power is the problem. The pursuit of peace and social justice is what God really calls us to. Put down your arms. And raise your hands to the sky seeking God’s forgiveness for unconscionable sins.

Sultan is the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University and directs the university’s Muslim Life Program in the Office of Religious Life. He is the author of The Koran for Dummies and The Qur’an and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: Selections Annotated and Explained.

TIME foreign affairs

Obama Can Ignore Public Opinion on Foreign Policy

President Barack Obama speaks about the situation in Iraq in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, DC, August 7, 2014. SAUL LOEB—AFP/Getty Images

National security works differently than domestic issues, and actually leaves the White House broad latitude to act and lead abroad--as long as its efforts produce results.

War-weary after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and reeling financially from the Great Recession, the public wants U.S. leaders to focus more at home and shoulder far fewer burdens abroad. The public certainly rejects more American “boots on the ground,” and will strongly resist the new U.S. advisers and air strikes in Iraq.

That’s the dominant media narrative, and it’s mostly wrong.

Last August, as President Obama considered military action against the Assad regime in Syria after it almost certainly used chemical weapons against its own people, ABC News argued that a lack of public and congressional support would constitute “a major obstacle” to the President launching such a strike.

In June, John Judis wrote in the New Republic about the Administration’s deployment of advisers to Iraq: “[Obama] is suffering from political cross pressures…there is next to zero public support for any military intervention in Iraq or anywhere else.”

This conventional wisdom shapes the thinking of elected officials, policy makers, outside experts and the media—and therefore ends up constricting the policy options the White House, Pentagon and State Department view as viable.

It is true that the polls have shifted, with the public expressing less support for ventures abroad. A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 52% now agree the United States should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” That’s the highest level ever, in 50 years of asking that question.

The public also seems less confident about our global power. A 53% majority now says the United States is less important and powerful than 10 years ago.

But on national security, we should all pay less attention to the polls.

Recent shifts in public opinion on national security don’t mean President Obama needs to retreat from America’s global leadership responsibilities. Public opinion on national security works differently than on domestic issues, and actually leaves the White House broad latitude to act and lead abroad, as long as its efforts produce results.

The public’s inward shift does create constraints on a few unique issues. It would be much harder now for the President to launch a prolonged U.S. involvement in a hot war, and the public’s economic anxieties do make it harder to enact new free trade agreements. Yet, for several reasons, recent shifts in public opinion should not matter so much to the President and those who make our national security policies.

First, while public opinion can have a particularly big influence on Congress, few of the things we need to do in the world require congressional approval. Obama did not need congressional approval to send military advisers back to Iraq or to launch a missile strike against Assad’s military infrastructure in Syria.

Second, the shifts in the polls are not particularly constraining because they are more about apathy than antipathy. Yes, there are record levels saying they do not want America to get involved abroad. But this is less of a rallying cry, and more of a big yawn.

There is not a single congressional campaign this year where national security (excluding immigration) is the dominant issue. And if national security plays virtually no role in congressional elections, then the President has little reason in most cases to feel constrained by public or congressional resistance.

Third, public opinion polls are simply the wrong instrument for evaluating support for foreign policy decisions. Voters evaluate national security differently than things like tax rate changes and school bonds—issues for which they have a pretty good intuitive feel. What voters mostly want on national security are policies that work, which they mostly judge after the fact. Indeed, with voters mainly focused on events at home rather than foreign affairs, the White House in many ways has more latitude to act abroad.

All this means that President Obama has relatively extensive public latitude on national security initiatives, even at a time when more of the public says they do not want to bear the burdens of global leadership.

Consider this: Polls in March showed that most Americans did not want the United States to get very involved in the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. But there was zero public outcry when Obama deployed a dozen U.S. F-16s to fly reconnaissance on the Russian border, sent warships to the Black Sea, and put more than 500 U.S. troops into neighboring countries.

In too many other cases, however, President Obama has seemed to avoid sharp-edged actions abroad, partly out of a fear that the American public will not support him. Obama’s new willingness to deploy American advisers and air strikes to protect U.S. interests in Iraq is more encouraging, and both he and his successors will find that if they take strong actions abroad that advance America’s national security interests, even an inward-focused public will provide the latitude they need to act.

Jeremy D. Rosner is Executive Vice President of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a Democratic polling firm in Washington, D.C. He served as senior staff on the Clinton National Security Council, and earlier was Vice President at the Progressive Policy Institute.

TIME foreign affairs

Senator Marco Rubio: Obama Needs to Dig In for a Fight in Iraq

Panel Endorses Libya Measure
WASHINGTON, DC - June 28: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., during the Senate Foreign Relations markup of legislation (S J Res 20) that would authorize limited U.S. military force in support of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) humanitarian intervention in Libya. Scott J. Ferrell—CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

ISIS's expansionist ideology will lead it to attack U.S. allies in the region and, eventually, Europe and the United States.

President Obama’s decision to authorize humanitarian operations and targeted airstrikes in Iraq comes as fundamentalist Islam is on the rise throughout the Middle East.

Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups continue to threaten Israel. The United States and its allies have been forced to close their diplomatic missions in Libya because of fighting between secular militias and al Qaeda-affiliated groups. The Taliban is going on the offensive in Afghanistan as the United States and coalition partners continue to draw down.

And perhaps of most concern, in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has established a caliphate, a fundamentalist state, in the heart of the Middle East. Flush with weapons and money, ISIS’s forces are making significant advances as they expand their territory.

ISIS, an extreme Sunni militant group that emerged from al Qaeda, has been occupying and razing churches across Iraq, pulling down crosses, destroying religious documents and holy sites, and forcing Christians and other non-Sunni Iraqis to convert or face death. It is capturing young girls and the widows of men they have executed for their own unmarried fighters. It has seized bridges, dams and other infrastructure that Iraqi towns and communities rely on for subsistence.

The United States is right to intervene in Iraq to provide humanitarian assistance to persecuted religious minorities—including the Yazidis currently surrounded by ISIS forces in northern Iraq and Iraqi Christians, who have been brutalized as ISIS has swept through their villages, massacring thousands and conducting forced conversions of those they do not kill.

But America’s security interests extend well beyond the fate of Iraq’s religious minorities. Because ISIS, with thousands of foreign fighters, many of them from the West, will not rest once it has taken Erbil or Baghdad. Its expansionist ideology will lead it to attack U.S. allies in the region and eventually Europe and the United States.

We have seen time and again in recent decades that terrorist groups, once established, use safe havens to launch attacks on the United States and our interests. We ignore this history at our own peril.

Instead of confronting this challenge head on, President Obama has until now avoided taking decisive action. He has let the civil war in Syria simmer for years, creating the space for this jihadist threat to grow and letting instability spread to Syria’s neighbors. Even after ISIS captured Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in June, the President was hesitant in his response, sending several hundred military advisors but not confronting ISIS directly even as it made military gains. Now, we are rightfully providing food and water to people who face slaughter from extremists who have pledged to kill them.

Given the threat that ISIS poses to not just the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, but also to our Kurdish partners in northern Iraq, the President was right to begin to strike ISIS targets. We also need to strike supply routes from Syria, leadership, and frontline military units from the air. We should target the oil refinery in Syria they are using to fund their operations. And we should go after other assets and funding networks to deny them the financing they need to carry out their operations.

We need to significantly increase our military and humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi government, as well as the Kurdistan Regional Government. Baghdad has in recent days taken action to assist the Kurds with air support, providing some hope that a political settlement that unites all Iraqi political factions remains possible.

The Kurds in particular need urgent U.S. assistance, including weaponry and training for their peshmerga forces that are now facing an adversary equipped with more advanced weaponry, some of it of U.S. origin stolen from the Iraqi military. The Kurds are also hosting more than a million refugees from other parts of Iraq and Syria that have fled their villages in the face of ISIS’s advance. Due to ongoing disputes between Erbil and Baghdad, the Kurdish government has limited resources to continue to provide for these refugees and for their own people.

President Obama rightly stated that he decided to use military force to protect U.S. diplomats and military personnel in Iraq. But this should not be our only goal.

ISIS’s continued rise is not just a problem for Iraq or its neighbors. If we do not continue to take decisive action against ISIS now, it will be not just Iraqis or Syrians who continue to suffer, it will likely be Americans, as a result of a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland or on our personnel overseas. America was faced with the same choice President Clinton faced in the 1990s during the emergence of al Qaeda: take action now, or we will be forced to take action in the future.

It is time to begin reversing this unprecedented tide of jihadist victories. America’s security and the safety of the American people are at stake.

Marco Rubio, who represents Florida in the U.S. Senate, is a member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations and Select Intelligence Committees.


Fears Rise in Northern Iraq Despite U.S. Support

Kurdish "peshmerga" troops take part in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State militants, on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh
Kurdish Peshmerga troops take part in an intensive security deployment against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants, on the outskirts of the province of Nineveh, Aug. 6, 2014. Reuters

Worries that help from Obama in Iraq is too little, too late

Even as President Barack Obama authorizes U.S. airstrikes against militants in Iraq, fears are rising that the fighters are advancing on Kurdish territory in the north of the country.

The Kurdish fighters—known as Peshmerga—had kept the militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) out of their territory for months, but the more than 1,000-km border they share with the militants is now under attack. “Now, the Kurds have more than one front open,” said Hoshang Waziri, an Iraqi analyst based in Erbil.

So despite Obama’s promise that “America is coming to help,” some fear it may be too little, too late.

The Kurdish government in Erbil welcomed Obama’s authorization of airstrikes—strikes that started Friday—but Kurds have been calling for U.S. intervention for months. From senior officials to shopkeepers in Erbil, American intervention has been seen as key for Kurds ever since the militants began claiming swaths of northern Iraq.

“Where was America?” asked Majid, a 28-year resident of Qaraqosh who fled his home this week with thousands of other Christians. He wouldn’t give his last name for fear of being targeted by the Islamists. He said as Peshmerga forces withdrew, the militants entered and took control of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city and home to some of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Some Christians have been told to convert to Islam or leave.

“They took the cross off our church and replaced it with a black flag of the Islamic State,” said Majid, who is seeking refuge in Erbil. Thousands of Christians have fled into the Kurdish territory and are sleeping on the floors of churches and community centers.

They are comparatively lucky. As many as 50,000 members of the Yazidi minority sect are trapped in the Sinjar mountains, surrounded as they were trying to escape the militants. The U.S. air-dropped humanitarian supplies overnight to the stranded Yazidis, but rescuing them will be difficult.

For Christians like Majid, it seems unlikely they will return home soon.

“I can’t live under the [ISIS]. Because every minute they do something different,” he said.

It may have been the element of surprise that allowed ISIS to gain so much ground, said Kenneth M. Pollack, a specialist in Middle East political-military affairs and a former CIA analyst. While Kurdish officials say they warned the government in Baghdad about ISIS’ offensive on Mosul and northern Iraq in June, many were surprised how quickly and easily the militants claimed Iraqi territory. They were even more surprised that the extremist Sunni militants were able to push the Peshmerga out of areas in the last week.

The Kurds may have become too comfortable as militants said their sights were set south, on the capital Baghdad, with no mention of Erbil. So when they attacked, the Kurds were caught off guard.

“The most interesting and frightening thing that happened is the fact that [ISIS] really has been able to beat-up on the Peshmegra,” Pollack said. “That’s not something anyone anticipated.”

Throughout June and much of July, the Kurdish region felt like an oasis of security protected by the Kurdish fighters. While there was little actual combat between the Islamists and the Peshmerga, the Kurdish people—and the world— praised the might of the Kurdish armed forces. But that might went untested.

“This is not the same Peshmerga of the 1960s and 70s,” Pollack said. The Peshmerga were known throughout the region as a strong fighting force as they resisted Turkish and Iraqi dominance. “Kurdistan has changed dramatically. They’re not these tough mountain boys anymore who were brought-up learning how to shoot. Now they are city kids and they don’t have the same exposure and they don’t have the same commitment.”

While the Peshmerga have experienced generals, they haven’t fought a war in almost two decades. Pollack said they may need more assistance than just the “limited strikes” suggested by Obama to defend their territory against ISIS.

Waziri said it’s not just military support the Kurds and Iraq need now from Washington. “The U.S. left Iraq but it still needs to use its leverage,” he said.

For months now, Sunnis and Kurds and an increasing number of Shi’ites have been calling for Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step aside and allow the formation of a new, more inclusive government to pull Sunnis away from allegiance with ISIS and mount a more united fight against the militants.

Instead, the factions remain divided and the Sunni tribes, who can play a key role, are discontent with al-Maliki’s leadership.

“Washington needs to put real pressure on Baghdad to get its s–t together,” Waziri said.

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