Why the hell is the United States going back into Iraq? And to what end?
Americans famously don’t know much about history, but the willingness to ignore the immediate decade-plus of failure and plunge back into the fog of war without any clear articulation of national interests, exit strategy, or even obvious battle plan borders on the criminally insane.
In last week’s official notification to Congress, President Obama invoked immediate, limited humanitarian aims as the trigger for action— who doesn’t feel for the the Yazidis, who are already suffering under the lunatic vision of a Caliphate propounded by the Islamic State?
But as The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reported, he’s using that aspect of the mission to provide cover for a far more expansive “military campaign [that] would last months and not weeks.” Our goal, the president said at a press conference, is to make sure the Islamic State “is not engaging in actions that could cripple a country.” How’s that for an open-ended statement of purpose?
We’ve seen this before. Although Obama didn’t bother notifying Congress about American involvement in Libya, the president also used humanitarian motives (a possible genocide) to justify military action against Qaddafi. It’s an understatement to say that it didn’t work out well, in Libya and in nearby countries).
The early reports of U.S. bombing runs in Iraq are not reassuring, with the military’s director of operations, Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, flatly declaring this week, “I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained, or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of [the Islamic State].” That can change, of course, but it’s already leading to increased numbers of military personnel pouring into Iraq. The White House is already talking about how “American ground troops” might be used in rescue missions for the Yazidi and told The New York Times that “the troops would have the ability to defend themselves if they came under fire.” What comes next if that happens?
Invading Iraq in 2003 was a mistake (57 percent of Americans concede as much). It was a blatant non sequitur in the Global War on Terror, a way for the Bush administration to divert attention from the stalled hunt for Osama bin Laden and the failure to immediately and publicly destroy al Qaeda’s capabilities. To the extent that the Iraq War was an exercise in “nation building” it failed massively, even as it destabilized the region and increased animosity toward the United States.
But this time we’re told that we’ll get it right, mmkay? And in short order (well, months and not weeks). And despite it not even being fully clear who, exactly, is the legal prime minister of Iraq.
Republican and Democratic hawks are now squeezing Obama, who only withdrew American troops in 2011 reluctantly, to sign the United States back up for a new war that they insist will end differently than the last one.
And it’s not like this administration ever had a deficit of hawks, either. Pushing a new memoir, defending her terrible record as Secretary of State, and (re)establishing her interventionist credibility for a possible presidential run in 2016, Hillary Clinton is now openly criticizing Obama’s failure to intervene in Syria’s civil war. Funnily enough, the man she says we should’ve intervened against, the murderous Bashir al-Assad, is now a de facto ally in our war on ISIS.
Explaining her reasoning, Clinton told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, “I worry about what’s happening in the Middle East right now is because of the breakout capacity of jihadist groups that can affect Europe, can affect the United States… They are driven to expand. Their raison d’etre is to be against the West, against the Crusaders, against the fill-in-the-blank.”
Or maybe, just maybe, their main concerns are actually within the Middle East. And maybe, just maybe, another poorly envisioned, poorly prosecuted U.S. intervention will underwrite the jihadists’ fever dreams for the foreseeable future.
Clinton and others (including George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld back in the day) are quick to paint the battle between Islamic extremism and the West as a new Cold War, a twilight struggle between two equally powerful alternative systems. But the plain fact is that jihadism is not the threat that communism (or fascism before it) posed to the free world. ISIL and other groups like it do not have the capacity, real or imagined, to destroy the liberal West in any way, shape, or form.
At the very least, they will spend the next decade or more fighting among themselves far more than exporting death to the West (and to the extent that they do the latter, they should be tracked down, killed, and otherwise brought to justice).
The goal of American foreign policy should first and foremost be the defense of American lives and goals. There’s no more reason to go back into Iraq now than there was to invade back in 2003. If the first decade-plus of the 21st century should have taught us anything, it’s that the United States’ ability to terraform the world in its image is severely limited and leads to all sorts of unintended consequences. In terms of strict humanitarian concerns, it would better to help people leave war-torn regions and accept them on our shores.
But if the warrant for a new Iraq war is, in the president’s words, to make sure that ISIL and other groups are “not engaging in actions that could cripple a country,” America’s worst days of playing World Police are still sadly ahead of us.