After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait President George H.W. Bush vowed "This will not stand" and assembled plans and forces to expel him. He agreed that Congressional approval was required. But he did not insist it be a hurried decision. Nor did he want it embroiled in the 1990 mid-term elections lest short term politics pollute the serious business of going to war. After a heated and serious debate the lame duck session passed the resolution, narrowly in the Senate. The UN also approved. A broad international coalition was assembled to fight and fund the effort at no cost to U.S. taxpayers.
When President George W. Bush cavalierly decided to invade Iraq, by contrast, he pushed for a congressional vote with a truncated debate before the 2002 mid-terms and used the issue to attack opponents of the war. Political calculations consumed more thought than examination of the administration's claims of weapons of mass destruction and mushroom shaped clouds. Little mention was made of the U.S. taxpayer funds going to bribe entry into the "coalition of the willing" or to the dubious at best claim of UN approval.
The lesson? How you go to war has a significant impact on the outcome.
Enter the Islamic State. Congress has given President Obama approval for limited operations until mid-December, after the mid-term elections. He has amassed an impressive coalition without apparent financial inducement. He has taken the case to the UN but it is unclear whether he will seek formal UN approval It also is uncertain whether the president thinks he needs congressional authorization for continued operations. And some in Congress want to delay any vote until the new Congress convenes in January. Not getting specific authorization from Congress would undermine coalition building. Kicking the can down the street, a Congressional proclivity, would leave the status of the operations and of our service members participating in limbo. Worse still, we would repeat the mistakes of the 2003 invasion by not asking, let alone debating the serious questions of war. These include:
• Do we have any idea what we are getting into? We did not understand the motivations or commitment of the Vietnamese, friend or foe. We did not understand even the basics of the Suni-Shia divide in Iraq. What makes us thing we can comprehend the swirl of tribes, ethnicities, feuds and hatreds of this far more complex tableaux?
• What is the nature of the threat to the U.S. and/or our allies and interests near term, medium term and long term? If, as seems likely, this is primarily a near and medium term threat to the region, what scale of response from the U.S. is justified?
• An inclusive government in Baghdad is a sine qua non for success. Prime Maliki's replacement is a good but insufficient step. If the Sunis and Kurds are not brought in, what faction or factions will we be fighting for.
Ground troops will be needed but why should U.S. troops be deployed? Why cannot those most directly threatened do the job, perhaps with temporary U.S. training? Should this be done with U.S. combat troops deployed under Title 10 USC 10 (DOD)? Or should trainers and advisors be under Title 50 USC (CIA)?
• Airpower is a U.S. comparative advantage and has been helpful in blunting the Islamic State drive. But regional air forces have significant capability including F-15, F-16, F-18 and European advanced fighters as well as tanker and AWACS capability. When will the air mission be localized?
Avoiding a full and honest debate while conducting political manipulation, getting in with a muddled mission and incoherent strategy for post invasion Iraq led directly to this current calamity in Iraq and Syria.. If we ignore the lessons of our involvement in this tragic and troubled quagmire without debate or clear strategy , we will again waste precious blood and treasure.
It is inexcusable that young American men and women put their lives at risk and the House and Senate cannot take the time to debate the limits, goals and strategy on which their lives may depend.