Iraq Turmoil Reignites A Decade-Old Debate

NPR's Scott Simon talks with political correspondent Tamara Keith about the reaction to President Obama's decision to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Obama's announcement this week has reignited the debate in Washington, D.C., about the White House's foreign policy in Iraq, the region and the world. NPR's White House correspondent, Tamara Keith, joins us. Tamara, thanks so much for being with us.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Glad to be with you.

SIMON: Does sending in military advisers who, by the way, wear boots, allow the president to sidestep a decision about putting boots on the ground, which is to say, U.S. soldiers who might get drawn into combat?

KEITH: The president has been very clear that there will be no boots on the ground in combat operations. These advisers will gather intelligence, both about ISIS, the group that is taking Iraq by storm these days, and also the Iraqi military because there's a lot we don't know about the Iraqi military. They'll also assist the military. Some on the left worry that there could be mission creep and that this will lead to U.S. troops in combat operations. And those on the right say that the president isn't going far enough. The president insists that combat operations in Iraq ended in 2011, and it's going to stay that way.

SIMON: President Obama says a political solution is necessary. How likely is that in the middle of an emergency? And how do they really feel about Prime Minister al-Maliki? It was hard to tell when the president just said, it's not our job to choose Iraq's leaders.

KEITH: I think there isn't a lot of love lost. They won't say precisely how they feel about him. But he is a problematic figure. Maliki is a Shiite. And in recent years, he has made Iraq a hostile place for Sunnis. ISIS is a Sunni group, and that's how, in some ways, they were able to go into these Sunni-dominated cities. Sunnis believe the government is out to get them. Until Iraq can come up with a government that makes everyone feel like they belong and that they are not threatened, then outside groups like ISIS can be appealing.

SIMON: Former Vice President Cheney wrote a very pointed op-ed this week with his daughter, Liz Cheney. The quote that got passed around a lot was, "rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many." Has this conflict in Iraq reopened old wounds and debates?

KEITH: Absolutely. Many of the same people who were the loudest voices for invading Iraq in 2003 were back on cable news, highly critical of the president. Meanwhile, Democrats who've opposed the war all along were saying that this never would have happened if the U.S. hadn't invaded. And then there's also been sort of a re-litigation of the withdrawal in 2011. Many are saying that if a small force of American troops had stayed in there, maintaining peace, none of this would have happened. But the president defended the move, saying the Iraqi government really left him no choice. And it's also just been tough for veterans and families who lost service members. Iraq is back again. And people are left wondering whether the pain was worth it if Iraq is falling apart now. And, you know, the remarkable thing is just a few weeks ago, everyone thought this war was over. And now it's roaring back.

SIMON: NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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