It's worth remembering these days -- as President Obama declares that air power will be the primary and perhaps only U.S. effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria -- that the impressive Pentagon videos of missile warheads exploding in the crosshairs obscure the difficulty that air power has in achieving positive, lasting effects on the ground. And that the effects of air campaigns diminish over time -- as the Germans discovered when their intense bombing of London in 1940 failed to break Britain's will. Shock and awe are short-lived.
For many decades the United States has sought macro wins on foreign policy -- big-ticket successes like invading Iraq, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bringing down Libyan dictator Mohammar Qaddafi, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and other notable goals only to see gains reversed and goal posts moved. So maybe it is time to scope ambitions and seek smaller prizes.
The decision to abandon the policy of aggressive containment, and launch a war to overthrow Saddam has led us to the precipice of what we had been attempting to avoid for a quarter of a century -- the breakup of Iraq, and dangerous instability for the foreseeable future, including the distinct possibility of a terrorist safe haven in the Sunni tribal lands. And, whether we agree with it or not, the U.S. will forever be blamed for all of the negative consequences. Relitigating the past is obviously painful for those who were so terribly wrong, and whose actions led to what is arguably the most egregious foreign policy error in the history of our country. But it is necessary as we consider the way ahead.
ISIS has effectively shown another way forward: to forget about Damascus and Baghdad for now, forget about the Sykes-Picot borders and create a new political space out of the parts of Syria and Iraq that their capitals do not control--a large and viable political territory with major historic cities, trade routes, oil resources and borders potentially abutting Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. For now, let's call it Syriaq.
The U.S. already destroyed the political, economic and social infrastructure of Iraq, turning it into an anarchic free-for-all of every clan for itself. We in the West try to deny the ugly consequences of our own actions by shrugging our shoulders and noting that Iraqis are, after all, "eternally tribal." But who do you turn to when the proverbial excrement--the destruction of your country--hits the fan? Most people revert to their core social identities--their clans, tribes, sectarian or regional groups--the only ones that can provide security against anarchy and enemies.