After Declaring 'There's No Military Solution,' Obama Launches New U.S. Military Intervention Targeting ISIS in Iraq

Posted Aug. 13, 2014

MP3 Interview with Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies, conducted by Scott Harris


With President Obama’s Aug. 7 authorization for U.S. military action targeting forces of the radical Sunni group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS – that has taken over large areas of northern Iraq and Syria, American soldiers are once again engaged in a war inside Iraq. The Pentagon has launched airstrikes against ISIS forces threatening the Kurdish regional capital city of Erbil as well as airlifted relief supplies to tens of thousands of minority Yazidi refugees who have fled to Mount Sinjar in the face of ISIS militant attacks.

Although the president has said that the U.S. involvement in Iraq this time will not involve "boots on the ground,” there are growing concerns that the return of U.S. forces to Iraq, the third war involving American soldiers in Iraq since 1991, could quickly escalate into a major commitment. This was evident in a recent report that the White House was considering deploying more U.S. troops to Iraq in addition to the 300 American military advisers authorized in June. Facing growing U.S. pressure, Iraq’s Parliament replaced Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's with Haidar al-Abadi, a member of Maliki’s own Shiite party, but it was unclear if the former U.S. ally would relinquish power without a fight. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Phyllis Bennis, director of the Institute for Policy Studies' New Internationalism Project. Here, she takes a critical look at President Obama's authorization for renewed U.S. military action in Iraq, and alternative policies she's proposed to address the crisis brought on by the ISIS takeover of Sunni population centers of northern Iraq.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: You have this huge problem in Iraq where the response of the Obama administration, in terms of what he says, is absolutely right. There is no U.S. military solution to this crisis. Absolutely right. So then the question emerges: "So then why are you sending military actions if they're not going to work?" And that's where it gets dangerous. Because what we're seeing, the idea, first of all that you can – with weapons of the sort that the U.S. has in its military arsenal, bombs and rockets – that somehow you can defeat Islamic extremism, we know that doesn't work. It hasn't worked anywhere. They've been trying for more than a decade now, and it hasn't worked anywhere. So that's the first thing.

But the other thing that we have to recognize, that as bad as ISIS is – and it is indeed a very grim outfit – it's not something we should take lightly. These really are people who want to return their standard of governance to the seventh century, essentially. But as bad as that is, the reason that they are so powerful is not that this relatively small group of very extremist militia – somewhere between 8,000-10,000 people total – despite their very good weapons, the reason they're able to hold territory is not because they're somehow magically stronger than every other militia in town, it's because they have local support for power.

So who's supporting them? Well, first you have their own military leaders – from what we understand – (who) are actually not Islamic extremists. They are Ba'athist, secular, nationalist generals and strategists and military officials and officers, most of them from the period of Saddam Hussein's army, which we should note, was a very capable army. These are the people that are creating the strategy, the training for the ISIS forces. That's number one.

Number two is the Sunni tribal leaders, who have their own militias, that they are putting at the disposal of ISIS, not because they also agree with this kind of extremism. These guys, like the Sunni generals – they drink, they smoke – they're people of the modern world. But they are prepared to ally with anyone to go against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian Shiite government.

And third, you have support coming tragically from ordinary Sunni Iraqis. Tragic, because these are people who are forced to ally with an organization that they can't stand in most cases, who are also not extremists, not trying to go back to the seventh century, but who are unable in any other way they can imagine to fight against this terrible government that has been so repressive, that has arrested Sunni Iraqis for no reason, that has tortured people, that has killed people without any kind of due process. And they're again, willing to ally with anyone to oppose Maliki.

As long as the U.S. takes the position that we can simply bomb the truckloads of militia guys, this isn't going to change. The only thing that will change it, is a real change in the government in Baghdad, meaning, not just the election of a new prime minister. They elected a new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, but he's a member of Maliki's own party. So the question, "Is this going to be any different than it was under Maliki?" We have no idea. There's simply no evidence yet that things are going to change as dramatically as they need to change.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Sen. Lindsay Graham said a couple of weeks ago that ISIS, if they are unchallenged and they are to remain in control of the territory, both in northern Syria and Iraq, if they're allowed to remain there, that will be the staging ground for the next attack on the United States. I wonder if you would just respond to the idea that there's an existential threat here that the United States must meet with military force.

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Yeah, that notion that this is somehow an existential threat is simply nonsense. You know, is there the possibility that somebody affiliated with ISIS who happens to have a U.S. or a European passport could come and carry out some kind of a terror attack? Yeah, theoretically, that's possible. People could come from anywhere and carry out a terror attack. Somebody could come from Paris, somebody could come from London. People can come from anywhere. That's a danger that's real. The notion that (ISIS, alone, via a staging ground in Iraq) is an existential threat to the United States is simply nonsense.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Phyllis, in your recent article, "Don't Go to Iraq," you wrote about five policy options that you say are more constructive than a military response to the ISIS forces occupying northern Syria and northern Iraq. Could you summarize those for us?

PHYLLIS BENNIS: Well I think the first one starts with, "Do no harm." There's a sense that anything the U.S. does militarily is likely to make things worse than things had been before. So we can start with the notion of, "Don't make things worse."

The second thing: There should be an immediate arms embargo on all sides. That means going back exactly to these regional allies – the Saudis, the UAE (United Arab Emirates), Qatar, and telling them they have got to prevent these weapons from going to all the various militias, on all sides, essentially.

Third, there should be immediate engagement with Iran. You know, this is the irony here. In Syria, it's even more overt. But even in Iraq, Iran and the U.S. are on the same side. Both want to go after ISIS, both are trying to give some legitimacy to the government in Baghdad, although both for somewhat different reasons, have had problems with Maliki. The notion of being willing to engage with Iran, toward some kind of pressure campaign to push the Iraqi government to stop the kind of sectarianism that has characterized it, to stop the violence against civilians. This is one thing that could really work.

Then there should be engagement much more broadly through the United Nations in terms of engaging with Russia and the others to create a new kind of international negotiating table. There's got to be a political solution here, and there's going to have to be all sides engaged. This is the same thing we've been talking about in Syria. Washington has got to stand back allow and encourage the United Nations to play the central role rather than insisting running it itself.

And then last, the U.S. should help to get assistance to people who need it. There are enormous new refugee crises and humanitarian crises going on right now. We owe Iraq an enormous debt. But we don't owe continued bombing and continued threats of occupation.

For more information on the Institute for Policy Studies and more analysis and commentary on President Obama’s authorization of U.S. military action in Iraq, visit

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