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U.S. weighs potential military response in Iraq

June 14, 2014 at 6:01 PM EDT
The Pentagon confirmed Saturday that a U.S. aircraft carrier is being sent to the coast of Iraq in response to the advance of Islamic militants in the country. What are America's military options in Iraq? For more, Janine Davidson, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations joins Hari Sreenivasan in New York.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: What are America’s military options? For more on that, we are joined by Janine Davidson. She is a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. So the president has said repeatedly no boots on the ground and here we have an aircraft carrier off the coast. Does that mean U.S. drones are the most likely or aircraft launched from these carriers?

JANINE DAVIDSON: It means options. An aircraft carrier can do an array of things from intelligence to airstrikes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And then in these sort of densely populated areas, are we likely to incur greater civilian casualties if we don’t have people on the ground?

JANINE DAVIDSON: That is the greatest risk of airstrikes and why some people think they’re not really a viable option. You really need people on the ground calling in where those things are going to happen, especially in an urban environment. Now if there are areas where the enemy is in an open space and you can confirm, then it may be more viable.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So in these open spaces, if I’m marching down that major highway towards Baghdad, does that make them more visible to these drones?

JANINE DAVIDSON: Sure if I were the military planner for ISIS I would think that was a pretty risky way to go, but it may be their only option.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what are the direct military options that we have?

JANINE DAVIDSON: The best option of all bad options is really to be assisting to get the Iraqi army and Iraqi security forces in a place where they can regroup and resist this; And in order to do that you have got to put pressure on Maliki, otherwise the underlying problems are not going to go away. In fact, I think the president is right to say unless he’s got a plan to reform his political ways, it is folly for us to just add fuel to the fire.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There will hundreds of thousands of Americans saying, listen we tried to get the Iraqi military to stand up, but when they were faced with a fight like this they actually laid down their arms and ran. So even if we tried to do this now, what’s to say it will work?

JANINE DAVIDSON: Well and the American people are right about that. If we try to do this now, without pressuring Maliki to make sure that he doesn’t do the kinds of things that he did before which is to fire the good leadership that we helped lead and train and put in place, and put in you know – untrained leaders into – across the spectrum of the military. That’s part of – that’s probably one of the main reasons why the army fell apart. They have terrible leadership, and they have not sustained the trajectory that we set for them, and that’s – that’s on Maliki.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And there’s – there doesn’t seem to be many other Western countries lining up to volunteer to go back in, either with boots on the ground or with any other military resources.

JANINE DAVIDSON: Frankly, the Europeans have a lot at stake here. I mean, regardless of how this thing started – you can go all the way back to the initial invasion or you can go all the way to what Maliki has done since, the fact is that ISIS has morphed into a virulent threat to the region that threatens to spill beyond the region. There are fighters coming from Europe and America with Western passports to join that fight in Syria. Where are they gonna go after? Are they gonna bring that fight home? So it is in the European’s interest to pay attention to what’s happening here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So there’s also a lot of different regional kind of connections involved here, with the Saudis who are our allies, have been supporting some of the Sunni rebels against Syria. The Iranians, who are not our allies, could be in this particular case.

JANINE DAVIDSON: Right. You know when you look at this region from a Western nation-state perspective, it looks really complex and it is. When you look at it with an ethnic, religious, tribal perspective, it starts to make a lot more sense. Right, so I mean the behavior of the Iranians, they are – they are helping Hezbollah and Assad’s forces against Sunni uprising in Syria. To them, they’re going to be doing the same thing in Iraq against the same guys. The border’s less relevant to the fact that these guys are their enemy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Janine Davidson from the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks so much.

JANINE DAVIDSON: My pleasure.