U.S. Slides Back into War in Iraq, Joining Conflict President Once Opposed

01/02/2016 06:00 am ET | Updated Jan 02, 2016
P_Wei via Getty Images

More U.S. military personnel have been sent to Iraq and Syria. Trainers, Special Forces, and airstrikes haven't been enough. The administration continues its slow progression to renewed ground combat. President Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize grows more tarnished by the day.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter informed Congress last month that a "specialized expeditionary targeting force" would be sent to Iraq on top of the 3500 personnel already there, with the authority to operate in Syria too. This mix of Special Forces "will over time be able to conduct raids, free hostages, gather intelligence, and capture ISIL leaders," explained Carter. Where greater opportunities appear to work with local forces, he added, "We are prepared to expand it."

This follows an increase in airstrikes in November. Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said "in the days ahead, we'll be aggressive in looking for ways to reinforce success. And we'll seize every opportunity to increase the tempo and effectiveness of our operations." Unfortunately, no matter how active these forces, they won't turn around a 16-month deadlock. The more men and materiel the president commits to "win," whatever that means, the more he will have to introduce after the failure of every successive escalation.

Secretary Carter said the raids would be conducted "at the invitation of the Iraqi government." Yet Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi quickly declared that while his people welcomed Western support, namely weapons, training, and airstrikes, "we confirm that Iraq has enough men and resolve to defeat Daesh and other similar criminal groups." Indeed, Iraq is a manpower-rich nation. The problem is sectarian misgovernance, which caused Sunni tribes and former Baathists to travel back to the 7th Century and ally with ISIL.

The president's promise not to commit "boots on the ground" already was trampled underfoot in October, when a Delta Force soldier was killed while accompanying Kurdish forces on a raid in Iraq. MSgt. Joshua Wheeler was the first American killed in combat since America's exit in 2011. Many more are likely to follow.

In fact, congressional hawks long have been pressing for a genuine expeditionary army. Leading congressional war-monger Sen. Lindsey Graham has been pushing to increase U.S. forces in Iraq to 10,000. He and Sen. John McCain proposed a 100,000 man "regional army to go into Syria." Of this force the U.S. would provide perhaps 10,000. Alas, waiting for Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and other Sunni states to contribute the rest would be akin to waiting for the Easter Bunny or Great Pumpkin to appear. Even if, as Sen. McCain claimed, the Arab governments now recognize the threat posed by ISIL, they aren't going to act as long as Washington plans to do the job for them. If there's going to be a large expeditionary combat force, it will be largely American. However, despite continued neoconservative enthusiasm for war, "few Americans retain any appetite for undertaking further large-scale hostilities in the Islamic world," noted Andrew Bacevich, professor emeritus at Boston University.

It is striking how quickly the lessons of the Iraq War have been forgotten. Indeed, many U.S. officials, such as Graham and McCain, never learned them. Yet retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, U.S. Special Forces Commander in both Afghanistan and Iraq and director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, pointed to them in an illuminating interview in Der Spiegel published in late November. He opined that after 9/11 "instead of asking why they attacked us, we asked where they came from. Then we strategically marched in the wrong direction." Washington developed its counterproductive strategy as a result of "all the emotions" taking over. The invasion and overthrow of Saddam Hussein unleashed the Islamic State. "It was a mistake to just eliminate him," said Flynn, as well as to take out Moammar Khaddafy in Libya, "which is now a failed state." The Iraq war was "a huge error." He concluded: "History will not be and should not be kind with that decision."

Nor will it look kindly on the present administration's steady but so far ineffectual escalation.

In fact, the Obama administration is attempting to do everything, which means it likely will achieve nothing. President Obama admitted that "I don't think we should be under any illusions that somehow Russia starts hitting only ISIL targets." In fact, Vladimir Putin's single-mindedness is the greatest, and perhaps only, strength of his policy. He has one primary objective and is doing everything to achieve it: sustain Syria's President Bashar al-Assad.

All of the local participants have similarly simple agendas. For instance, alongside Moscow, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah support Assad. Nominal allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia have the equal, countervailing, goal, to oust Assad. They therefore lean toward the Islamic State, though U.S. pressure has forced them into nominal opposition. The majority-Shia government in Baghdad wants to preserve its authority over the entire nation. The Assad government wants to survive, while the insurgents hope to overthrow him, even as they position themselves for the brutal struggle that would follow his ouster.

In contrast, Washington hopes to simultaneously defeat ISIL and defenestrate Assad, the single strongest force opposing the Islamist radicals. The administration wants to reestablish Baghdad's authority nationwide while convincing Iraqi leaders to grant more authority to the Sunnis, with whom they have effectively been at war since the U.S. invasion. American officials are trying to persuade Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey to focus their efforts on ISIL, a Sunni group which is the strongest force deployed against Assad, their priority. Washington is working closely with Kurdish forces, which Ankara views as an existential threat dedicated to breaking up Turkey. The U.S. has devoted much money and effort to bolstering the weak and decreasingly effective "moderate" insurgents in the hopes that they can defeat both Assad and the Islamic State. Now Washington is caught in between Turkey and Russia as they confront each other over Assad's survival.

Nor is ISIL easy to defeat. With the McCain-Graham expeditionary army Raqaa might be cleared of Islamic State combat forces, but the battle then would change form, as it did in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Flynn warned that "We may cause it to change its name, but we are never going to destroy this organization." Then the question would become how long is America prepared to occupy yet another Arab country or two in order to establish order, remake the state, impose liberal institutions, and ensure preservation of the foregoing?

The latter is critical. The U.S. spent billions of dollars building and supporting governments and training and equipping militaries in such diverse nations as Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, and Vietnam. The latter three all collapsed in varying degrees after an ill-timed push. The first has buckled. But in its case the pushing has just begun with allied forces still in country. Even after "victory" the U.S. would have to stick around, or trust its local frenemies, as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all are trending, to sort things out. And the U.S. may be no happier with their efforts than if ISIL remained in charge.

A better policy would be for the U.S. to back away now, before what economists call the "sunk cost" becomes so great that no American president could halt the ever-deepening commitment. In fact, ISIL never threatened the U.S., other than executing a couple of hapless Americans who fell into its hands, because it was focused on creating a caliphate, or quasi-nation state. Having a return address made the group susceptible to retaliation. Only recently has it begun to employ terrorist attacks--against Russia, Lebanon's Hezbollah, France, and probably Turkey's Kurds--as retaliation for their active operations against the Islamic State. Although ISIL could decide to continue, like al-Qaeda, warring against its enemies afar, it would be unlikely to focus its resources on America given the abundance of its local enemies.

Indeed, the Islamic State prospers only because of the weakness of its adversaries. Without America's presence they would have to confront a much more serious ISIL threat of both subversion and terrorism. Baghdad would face greater pressure to make a deal with Iraqi Sunnis. Assad would have more incentive to try to find some accommodation with more moderate insurgents. Turkey and Saudi Arabia would have to consider the destabilizing impact of so many Sunni radicals nearby. Powers which Washington cannot force into a coherent coalition might more informally reach a complicated, regionalized modus vivendi which everyone could live with. At the same time, the U.S. could concentrate its resources on incapacitating or killing individuals and destroying or debilitating movements dedicated to striking America even after Washington's disengagement.

The President insisted that he "was confident we are on the winning side of this." So has virtually every other leader in every other conflict, including the first Iraq War. There is still time for the president to return luster to his Nobel Prize by reversing course, pulling the U.S. out of yet another extended ground war in the Middle East. For more than a decade Washington has been engaged in what historian Barbara Tuchman referred to in another time and circumstance as "the march of folly." It is time to call a halt.

CONVERSATIONS