Obama's Former Iraq Ambassador Calls For Air Strikes

Jun 13, 2014
Originally published on June 13, 2014 3:10 pm

James Jeffrey was Ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012 under President Obama. He also served as a special advisor for Iraq under President George W. Bush. He’s now at the Washington Institute.

Jeffrey joined Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss what he thinks should be done in in Iraq in the coming months. According to Jeffrey, the U.S. should take actions to assist Iraq in this conflict.

“We have tremendous interests involved here including fighting terrorism,” he said. “And Iraq, unlike Syria, is a major oil exporting country. You see the impact we already have on oil prices. We have to act and we have to act swiftly.”

He said that Obama should use air strikes to stop ISIS from continuing their current advance. If they aren’t stopped, he fears the insurgent army will surround Baghdad, involve Iran, and cut off Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Air strikes could immobilize ISIS, but Jeffrey is also convinced that the American assistance will inspire the Iraqi soldiers to continue fighting.

“The American people were perfectly quiet when we bombed Libya for six months, so I don’t see what the problem is.”

“Troops will stand and fight if they know that there is air strikes on the other end,” he said. “And frankly, people don’t advance and pick up trucks quite as easily if they’re facing the possible threat of attack from the air.”

Jeffrey rejected the idea that these air strikes might cause more problems in the long run, as well as the argument that these issues began when the U.S. pulled out of Iraq too quickly. Instead, he claimed that right now, it’s more important to think about our national interests in the area and the potential consequences of inaction.

“No one … wants less to see America get bogged down in another war [than I do],” Jeffrey claimed. “But that’s not what we’re talking about here.”

He said that the his ideal operation in Iraq would more closely resemble military operations conducted in the past in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya. These past missions achieved their goals without wasting taxpayer money, according to Jeffrey, while also avoiding American casualties.

More importantly, he said, “the American people were perfectly quiet when we bombed Libya for six months, so I don’t see what the problem is.”

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  • James Jeffrey, Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow at the Washington Institute and former ambassador to Iraq.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.


I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. President Obama said today that he will not send troops back into combat in Iraq. He is instead weighing other options, which could include more weapons, airstrikes and intelligence sharing. Iraq's Shiite led government is facing the well armed and well organized Sunni militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Their fighters are closing in on Baghdad after capturing large parts of the country. Today, the president said any U.S. assistance would have to be joined by efforts by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences and promote stability.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So this should be a wake-up call. Iraq's leaders have to demonstrate a willingness to make hard decisions and compromises on behalf of the Iraqi people in order to bring the country together. In that effort, they will have the support of the United States and our friends and our allies.

HOBSON: James Jeffrey was ambassador to Iraq from 2010-2012 under President Obama. He also served as special advisor for Iraq under President George W. Bush. He's now at the Washington Institute and he joins us via Skype. Ambassador, welcome.

JAMES JEFFREY: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

HOBSON: Well, what do you think the United States should do, if anything, about what's happening in Iraq?

JEFFREY: Well, right now the United States should act. We have tremendous interest involved here, including fighting terrorism. This is the largest concentration of al-Qaida terrorists in the world we've ever seen now in Iraq and across the border in Syria. And Iraq - unlike Syria - it's a major oil exporting country. You've seen the impact it's already had on oil prices. We have to act and we have to act swiftly. In the short run, it's stopping the ISIS from encircling Baghdad, pulling Iran into this fight and probably severing Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. Over the longer term, there has to be a whole lot of reconciliation efforts on the part of the Iraqi government with the Sunni Arabs or the country will not hold together.

HOBSON: Well, so what kind of action would you be looking for?

JEFFREY: Well, in the short term, the president - as he said yesterday - he was considering should use airstrikes to ensure that this ISIS, essentially, rapid mobile warfare that is trying to - assume will try to encircle Baghdad - is stopped? And airpower can do this. I've seen it, we saw it in Libya as Gaddafi tried to attack Benghazi. We saw it in VIetnam when I was there 1972 in the Easter Offensive. Troops will stand and fight - and that's been a problem with the Iraqis - if they know that there is air strikes on the other side. And frankly, people don't advance in pick-up trucks quite as easily if they're facing the possible threat of attack from the air. It just doesn't happen.

HOBSON: But some are saying that that is the wrong way to get. Sterling Jensen, who is teaching at the National Defense College in Dubai, told the Daily Beast (reading) U.S. air strikes against ISIS would be helpful in the short term but potentially damaging in the mid to long term because air strikes without government overtures to Sunni Arabs would potentially strengthen the hand of a sectarian Shiite government that stays in power by marginalizing Sunnis.

What do you say to that kind of criticism?

JEFFREY: He's wrong. There will be no medium or long term with Iraq and possibly the Middle East if ISIS is able to surround and threaten Baghdad seriously, that's going to pull Iran in. That's going to push the Kurds out. God knows what the Turks will do. They already have 80 hostages up in Mosul. This is a dramatic situation. Over the longer term, he's absolutely right. There will be no success in the president's goal of denying the al-Qaida people a permanent refuge in Iraq if we do not reach to the Sunnis. But that's not something we can really work right now. This is a question of days.

HOBSON: Why do you think Iraq is in the position it's in right now?

JEFFREY: It's in the position it is in right now beginning with Syria. The situation in Syria got out of hand and essentially, a rump terrorist movement - and a small one in Iraq - what we called al-Qaida in Iraq - under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was able to seize a foothold in Syria because of the fighting against the Assad regime, build up forces, gain support, gain money and volunteers from all over the Arab world and then saw its opportunity in Iraq. Now in Iraq, the Maliki government did not use the opportunity the American success there gave it to reach out to the Sunnis. That's absolutely correct. And because of that, the Sunni population felt they were being occupied by the likes of the Shia Arab Iraqi Army and it was very difficult for that army, with an unhappy population, to hold against the attacks from what is now ISIL, what used to be al-Qaida in Iraq, when they came across the border seven, eight months ago.

HOBSON: What about people who say that the problem is that the United States pulled out of Iraq too quickly?

JEFFREY: Well, the United States wanted to keep troops on, President Obama supported that. The Iraqi government and people - in 2011, remember there was almost no fighting. There were almost no attacks in Iraq - basically thought that the price of keeping troops on, which would've been a status of forces agreement, granting all American soldiers legal immunity from the Iraqi judicial system, was a price they didn't want to pay. They wanted about 5,000 troops to remain to do exactly the kind of things we could be doing now. But they didn't want to sign status of forces agreement and because of that, the administration, for good reasons, decided we couldn't keep troops on.

HOBSON: And you think that was the right move by the administration at the time?

JEFFREY: I think that given the fact that the Iraqis would not sign a status of forces agreement, I have considerable sympathy for the administration. I didn't want to see American troops in Iraq given the highly politicized environment and the many enemies of America that we had among particularly the (unintelligible) and some others that it would make sense to have Americans exposed to a corrupt judicial system. So that was the problem. We did try to keep a security relationship and we have a very large one with Iraq. But it's not the same thing as having troops in.

HOBSON: What do you say to Americans who are listening to you and saying - I have no appetite for going into Iraq again, even if it's just airstrikes?

JEFFREY: I'd challenge them. I'd say no one, having spent four years in Vietnam and Iraq, wants less to see America to get bogged down in another war with hundreds of thousands of troops and trillions of dollars of taxpayer money down the drain. And they're absolutely right to avoid that. But that's not what they're talking about here. We're talking about an operation like that conducted over Bosnia, over Kosovo, over Libya in 2011 by the same government administration. That doesn't involve casualties - on our side at least. It doesn't involve money and the American people were perfectly quiet when we bombed Libya for six months. So I don't see what the problem is.

HOBSON: James Jeffrey was ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. He's now at the Washington Institute. Ambassador, thanks for joining us.

JEFFREY: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.