The Complex

As Iraq Mission Expands, White House Struggles to Define Its Goal and Objectives

Nearly two weeks into the Obama administration's bombing campaign in Iraq, the White House is still struggling to define a conflict in which it's launched more than 70 airstrikes at Sunni militants and has deployed more than 800 U.S. military personnel.

But as the mission wears on, the public articulation of what the United States is doing in Iraq seems to be more and more elusive -- and evolving. The administration entered the conflict with an aggressive airstrike and airdrop campaign in northern Iraq based, it said, on the need to protect the U.S. personnel in the country and to prevent militants from slaughtering members of the Yazidi religious minority sect stranded atop Mount Sinjar. Then last week, U.S. officials announced that a reconnaissance team that had visited Sinjar discovered that the humanitarian crisis wasn't as bad as first feared, thus removing one of the main justifications for the air campaign. In recent days, the United States has launched a barrage of airstrikes in and around Mosul that appear to be directly targeting the Islamic State, leading many to conclude that the mission is expanding beyond the administration's stated goals and objectives.

"The administration can call it whatever they want, but semantics aside, they're now waging war," said Stephen Biddle, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

The violence in northern Iraq took a grisly turn Tuesday as video images of an American freelance journalist, James Foley, surfaced that apparently showed him being beheaded by the Islamic State. White House officials said the intelligence community is scrambling to determine the video's authenticity. "If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We will provide more information when it is available," said National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden in a statement.

But while it appears that U.S. objectives are limited in Iraq, there is enough wiggle room that officials could use the administration's broad definition of its operations to justify an expanded conflict.

The Islamic State (also known as ISIS and ISIL) is hell-bent on threatening Americans and U.S. interests and has already caused human suffering on an enormous scale inside Iraq, so the White House's stated goals could clear the way for significantly expanded U.S. actions, said Thomas Joscelyn, senior editor of the Long War Journal.

"If you review the administration's rhetoric carefully, you'll see that their definition of the terrorist threat is directly tied to their desire to avoid putting American boots on the ground," Joscelyn said. "I'm sure this influences their thinking when it comes to defining America's objectives in Iraq and the nature of our enemies there."

The confusion is also cropping up in how the Pentagon is describing its operations and the reasons behind them. Last week, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said the U.S. military had three objectives in Iraq.

"They are, one, to protect American citizens and facilities; two, to provide advice and assistance to Iraqi forces as they battle ISIL; and, three, to join with international partners to address the humanitarian crisis," he told reporters on Aug. 14.

But this week, he emphasized that there were only two missions for U.S. airstrikes.

"One is in humanitarian assistance operations, and one is to protect U.S. personnel and facilities," Kirby said. "That's how decisions are made with respect to airstrikes."

Pentagon officials said the mission itself hasn't been changing even as the public case for it -- and its stated objectives -- continues to evolve. Still, the shifting messages about the growing campaign highlight the administration's internal divisions about how seriously to get involved in a conflict and country the White House had long hoped to avoid.

On Friday, the mission seemed to expand slightly as defense officials announced that more bombs were being dropped in and around Mosul, which IS had taken over more than two months ago, and in the vicinity of the massive Mosul Dam, which provides electricity to millions of Iraqis. Militants have failed to properly maintain the dam and at times threatened to destroy it; either step would flood broad swaths of the country.

In the days since that portion of the campaign began, the United States conducted more than 40 airstrikes to help the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga retake the Mosul Dam from the Islamic State. If militants were to blow up the already fragile dam, it could send a wave of water 60 feet high down the Tigris River, flooding much of downtown Baghdad. Pentagon officials say these airstrikes are being conducted to avert a humanitarian crisis were the dam to be destroyed.

"If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would have threatened the lives of thousands of civilians and endangered our embassy compound in Baghdad," President Barack Obama said Monday in a press briefing at the White House that he used to announce that the dam was back in Iraqi control.

But the bombing campaign in and around Mosul is, for many, pushing the boundaries of the U.S. military's stated goals because it appears designed to batter IS rather than protect U.S. personnel or avert a humanitarian crisis. On Tuesday, Kirby pushed back against the idea that the goals or objectives of the mission were changing -- or expanding.

"The airstrikes that we conducted in and around Mosul Dam over the last 72 hours or so fit into both those categories, both helping prevent what could be a huge humanitarian problem should the dam be blown ... and also to protect U.S. personnel and facilities," Kirby said.

The Obama administration's difficulties in articulating just what the campaign in Iraq is or what the long-term strategy should look like may be a reflection of the confusion among Americans. A new USA Today/Pew Research Center poll finds that more Americans think the country has a responsibility to respond to the violence in Iraq at the same time that many fear the United States could return to another long war in Iraq, in what amounts to a shift in thinking among Americans. According to the poll, 44 percent of Americans think the United States has a responsibility to act, up from 39 percent a month ago. Meanwhile, 41 percent believe the United States doesn't have a responsibility to act, down from 55 percent who thought that last month.

As the Pentagon's operations continue in Iraq, there are other indications that the administration is reluctant to "brand" its operations there. That's true in the fact that the operation still has no name. From Operation Urgent Fury, the invasion of Grenada in 1983, to Desert Storm in Iraq, the military almost always brands its operations, big or small. For a military that names almost any operation, the bombing campaign in Iraq that began Aug. 8 still lacks an operational name.

Last week, Kirby said he didn't know why the operation didn't have a name but that it didn't matter anyway since it's not as if the United States was attempting to play down the mission.

"It doesn't matter if it has a name or not," he said.


The Complex

Social Media Companies Scramble to Block Terrorist Video of Journalist's Murder

Twitter and YouTube moved quickly on Tuesday -- but with decidedly mixed results -- to suspend accounts that linked to a jihadi propaganda video purporting to show the murder of American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamist terrorists. The crackdown provided a vivid example of the pressure on social media companies to police violent terrorist propaganda, but at the same time it showed the difficulty they have in stopping individuals intent on spreading violent images and rhetoric.

The video, which shows a member of the Islamic State beheading Foley, appeared on YouTube shortly after 5 p.m. U.S. Eastern time. Within minutes, Twitter users were noting the video's existence, and many people encouraged others not to share the video or post any links to it. The video was reportedly produced by al-Furqan Media, the official news outlet for the Islamic State, which formerly used the acronym ISIS.

Less than an hour after the video was first posted to YouTube, the company removed it. But the same video was soon posted by a different YouTube user, and it remained accessible for at least another half an hour. The company eventually removed the video from the user's account, but it didn't suspend the account itself, and within minutes, the user had posted it again. Twitter suspended the user's account after he included a link to the video in his feed. Foreign Policy is not linking to the video or to accounts posting it.

The Foley case highlights how Twitter and YouTube, two of the most widely used social media platforms on the planet, are increasingly finding themselves on the front lines of a war against the shadowy militants who have proved increasingly adept at using social media to disseminate gruesome videos of killings and mutilations as a way of recruiting new followers and raising more money. At a briefing for reporters last week, U.S. intelligence officials said Islamic State supporters managed thousands of Twitter accounts that translated the group's propaganda into German, Indonesian, and Russian, as well as English.

But the social media companies are fighting a losing battle. They depend on users to flag offensive content or material that violates their terms of service -- videos of murder undoubtedly do -- but they don't proactively police the photos, videos, and messages posted to their sites. The companies also have to determine whether posting violent rhetoric or messages constitutes promoting terrorists' messages or is an act of free speech, and the distinction is not always clear.

In response to how social media companies responded to the video of Foley, who disappeared in Syria in 2012, a Twitter spokesperson cited the company's policy of removing "imagery of deceased individuals in certain circumstances." The spokesperson didn't elaborate on whether Twitter made that decision when suspending users who were linking to the video.

A spokesperson for YouTube, who also didn't elaborate on the company's actions with regards to the Foley video, said the company "has clear policies that prohibit content like gratuitous violence, hate speech and incitement to commit violent acts, and we remove videos violating these policies when flagged by our users." YouTube also terminates any account registered by a member of a designated foreign terrorist organization, the spokesperson said.

In the video showing Foley's murder, the Islamic State threatened to kill another journalist, Steven Sotloff, unless U.S. President Barack Obama met the group's unspecific demands. (The Foley video strongly condemns recent U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq.) Sotloff, who went missing in Syria in August 2013, has written for numerous publications, including Time, the Christian Science Monitor, and Foreign Policy, including two dispatches from Syria. One, from December 2012, chronicled the toll that the civil war was taking on civilians in Aleppo. Another, published in January 2013, reported on thousands of Syrians displaced by the fighting and living in a makeshift tent city.

Twitter's response to news of the Foley killing -- which was shared widely and swiftly on the platform -- appears to have had unintended consequences, as when the company briefly suspended the account of a journalist reporting on Foley's death. That contradicted Twitter's policy of not suspending accounts that tweet or comment on violent propaganda for journalistic purposes or in the process of news gathering. The journalist, Zaid Benjamin, is the Washington correspondent for Radio Sawa and appeared to be the first reporter to note that the Foley video was online. He tweeted numerous messages analyzing the video and responded to questions from followers. Benjamin also showed still images of the video, but not the moment of Foley's death. Benjamin also didn't link to the video itself.

After his account was reinstated, Benjamin reported that he lost 30,000 followers during the time he was blocked from the social media site. Benjamin told Foreign Policy that he received no explanation from Twitter for his suspension. A spokesperson for the company, when asked, didn't provide one.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the White House said that U.S. intelligence agencies are "working as quickly as possible" to determine the Foley video's authenticity. "If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends. We will provide more information when it is available," the spokesperson said.

Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images