Dempsey: Does Iraq have a political future?

July 26, 2014

At the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, General Martin E. Dempsey opened his remarks with a joke: “Some of you in the audience have been kind enough to invite me [to the Aspen Security Forum] four years in a row, but I wanted to wait until things calmed down before I came.”

This was, of course, a reference to the many crises playing out across the globe. With Lesley Stahl moderating, General Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed almost every major strategic issue in the world that concerns the United States, with special focus on the crises in Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine. His remarks (transcript here) were lucid and engaging.

General Dempsey’s remarks on Iraq were particularly interesting and I quote them here as they represent, I think, the first open acknowledgment by a senior official that Iraq may not survive as a unified political entity. He advanced, in the strongest terms we’ve seen so far, President Obama’s position that the onus is on Baghdad to pursue a more inclusive polity. And he was willing to broach the possibility that it might not happen and that Iraq might not survive. He also discusses how the U.S. military is viewing the ISIL problem strategically:

DEMPSEY: ISIL has some longer term objectives that we should acknowledge and we should take the longer view on how to deny them those objectives. The immediate task is to determine whether Iraq has a political future. Because if Iraq has a political future then we will work through Iraq among others to deal with the ISIL threat. If Iraq does not have a political future, as an inclusive unity government, then we’re going to have to find other partners. To take-

STAHL: Are you talking militarily?

DEMPSEY: I’m talking — well, I mean, it’s pretty hard to discuss military options devoid of policy decisions at this point.  What I’m talking about is a — is a strategy that initially assesses — tries to better understand the threat, assesses that which exists or remains that can either contain it and degrade it, and what that force might need if it were to try to defeat ISIL, to work on the periphery, to squeeze this thing from as many directions as possible.  And, you know, to precipitously, if you will, take military action might gain some tactical advantage, frankly, but it wouldn’t do much for us to build the kind of strategy that I think we need.

STAHL: Is the United States government, military totally committed to destroying ISIS?

DEMPSEY: Let me speak for the United States military.  The United States military does consider ISIL a threat to — initially to the region and our close allies, longer term to the United States of America, and therefore we are preparing a strategy that has a series of options to present to our elected leaders on how we can initially contain, eventually disrupt and finally defeat ISIL over time.

Later, doing the Q&A, General Dempsey got into more detail:

DEMPSEY: if we get a credible partner, then — meaning in the Iraqi government that commits to trying to become much more inclusive than they have been up till now, then I think we can do any number of things.  We can try to help restore the capability and readiness of the Iraqi security forces so that at some point they can begin to regain some lost territory.  We can — in that process, we could put advisory teams forward with them.  We know how to do that.  We do it in Africa frequently.  We do it in Yemen.  We’ve done it in Somalia, where we can put advisers on the ground who know how to go far enough forward to provide intelligence, to provide planning expertise, to use close-air support if we take a decision to provide close-air support.  We can target.  If ISIL becomes a threat to this country, clearly we would have the — (coughs) — pardon me — the capability to deal with it.

But look, those are, that’s a, there’s kind of bins out there, bins of, bins of possibility that we might employ if we can find a strategy with partners to execute it.

But we haven’t actually come to that point.  We’re still very much in the development of those options.  And I think that’s the place we really ought to be right now.


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Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.

Image: U.S. Army