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Obama’s Iraq PR: Military Offensive Is Defensive

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Neil Munro
White House Correspondent

The U.S. Aug. 17 airstrikes that helped Iraqi forces recapture a huge dam in Iraq’s north from jihadis comply with President Barack Obama’s promise to conduct only defensive airstrikes that protect U.S. soldiers and facilities, says a White House statement.

The airstrikes are “consistent with President Obama’s directive that the U.S. military protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq,” said the Aug. 17 statement by Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council.

That’s because the jihadis could flood much of southern Iraq, including the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, the letter suggested.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities — including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad — and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” said the letter.

The rationalization spotlights the president’s efforts to minimize his military operations in Iraq, which is now facing a grave threat from the jihadis, dubbed the Islamic State.

If Obama stays out of Iraq’s battles, he risks seeing a huge national security and humanitarian disaster wreck his presidency.

But he’s under pressure from progressives to keep U.S. forces out of Iraq, because that’s what he promised them when they helped elect him in 2008.

“The base doesn’t want airstrikes and Democratic swing voters who tend to be more blue-collar don’t want re-involvement in Iraq,” Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster and strategist told The Hill.

Obama needs progressives’ votes in November because the GOP is on track to win the Senate in the midterm election.

If Obama tries mollify progressive opposition by getting Congress’ approval for airstrikes, he risks a crippling defeat from a temporary coalition of isolationist Democrats and distrustful Republicans. “Many Democrats [in Congress] would face a challenge voting for this thing,” said Lake.

But if he doesn’t ask Congress for legislative approval, some progressives may conclude he’s also breaking the post-Vietnam war powers act to hide his involvement in the Iraq war. “If he’s looking for a longer-term military engagement… he’s got to come back to Congress,” Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy told Buzzfeed.

The pressure is also coming from Democratic legislators, including Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Tim Kaine, and Rep. Brad Sherman, plus Democratic candidates, such as Bruce Braley, the Democrat candidate for Iowa’s open U.S. senate seat.

So far, Obama’s team are downplaying the purpose and scale of the airstrikes.

“These operations are limited in their nature, duration, and scope and are being undertaken in coordination with and at the request of the Government of Iraq,” said Hayden’s letter.

“The Administration will continue to consult with the Congress on the way forward in Iraq and our efforts against ISIL, and we will continue to provide appropriate reports to the Congress consistent with the War Powers Resolution,” it added.

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