There are plenty of reasons for President Obama to resist the growing chorus of voices calling for military action in Iraq. Five of them are set out below.
1) The Law of Unintended Consequences: Just as during the run up to the 2003 intervention in Iraq, advocates of military action are stressing the alleged upsides without considering the potential negative consequences. Former Reagan administration official Kenneth Adelman famously asserted that a war in Iraq would be a "cake walk." Ten years, hundreds of thousands of American and Iraqi casualties, and several trillion dollars later, we should know better. Many of the loudest voices calling for military action are the same people who helped launch the 2003 intervention in Iraq, which was one of the greatest foreign policy disasters in U.S. history. This time no one is talking about "boots on the ground" -- yet -- but starting with air strikes could easily lead to deeper U.S. involvement once it is clear that bombing is having no effect.
2) There Is No Military Solution: It will be extremely difficult to identify and target members of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in an irregular war, much of which is being conducted in urban areas where civilian casualties will be inevitable. In addition to causing unnecessary suffering and death, the likely result of a U.S. bombing campaign would be a propaganda victory for ISIS and a backlash against the United States in Iraq and the region.
3) It Makes No Sense to Prop Up the al-Maliki Regime: While the primary blame for the current phase of the crisis should go to ISIS, the al-Maliki regime enabled the violence by repressing the Sunni population -- one possible reason there was so little resistance to ISIS in the initial phases of the conflict. Without reforms in the Iraqi government that recognize the needs of all Iraqis, U.S. action would merely be propping up a sectarian government that has little prospect of ending the war. The Obama administration has acknowledged this problem, but it hasn't carried it to its logical conclusion: it makes no sense to offer military backing to the al-Maliki government as it is currently configured.
4) Sending Arms Is Likely to Make Matters Worse: As happened in Mosul, weapons supplied to the Iraqi armed forces are just as likely to end up in the hands of ISIS as they are to be used against it. Even seemingly risk free actions like the Reagan administration's arming of the anti-Soviet opposition in Afghanistan can have serious unintended consequences -- in that case by bolstering anti-U.S. extremists who went on to form Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Sending arms to Iraq now could just end up increasing the military capacity of U.S. adversaries.
5) It's a Regional Problem: Most countries in the immediate region have an interest in stemming the violence. Turkey has had its diplomats in Iraq kidnapped by ISIS. Jordan and Lebanon are being strained to the limit by the need to host refugees from the war in Syria. Neither the United States, nor Iran, nor the Gulf States want to see an Al Qaeda-like group gain a permanent foothold in the area. As difficult as it may be, a regional diplomatic initiative aimed at resolving the conflict in Syria and containing ISIS is the best way forward. This time, all relevant actors, including Iran, must be at the table. The roots of the current crisis go back more than a decade, so diplomatic efforts are likely to take time. But they are far better than the alternatives.
There are promising signs that the Obama administration is taking some of the above-mentioned factors into account in its deliberations over what to do in Iraq. For now, the administration is holding off on the idea of launching air strikes due to doubts about their effectiveness. And an administration official said that they are seeking a "comprehensive strategy" rather than a "quick military response." But this doesn't mean military action is entirely off the table. The option of sending special operations forces to train and support the Iraqi military appears to be gaining favor within the administration, and it would no doubt be accompanied by increased arms supplies.
The ultimate shape of U.S. involvement in Iraq will depend on what the administration is hearing from the public. Just as an outpouring of opposition headed off proposals to bomb Syria, a concerted campaign to persuade the White House to avoid military intervention in Iraq could make a difference. Organizations like Win Without War, MoveOn, Women's Action for New Directions (WAND) and Peace Action are mobilizing supporters to speak out against any military moves in Iraq, and their activities could be decisive in heading off U.S. intervention.
Much of the current debate over what to do in Iraq wrongly assumes that the absence of military action is synonymous with doing nothing. This is a dangerous assumption that ignores the need to develop diplomatic options. When it comes to military action, the U.S. should stay out of Iraq.
William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
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