A Reluctant, Tentative Endorsement of (More) U.S. Military Action in Iraq
“As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. . . . American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.” —President Obama , Aug. 7, 2014
On Aug. 7 President Obama announced on live TV that he had authorized U.S. military strikes against ISIS forces in Iraq and humanitarian airlifts  of food and water to some 5,000 to 12,000 Yazidis, an ethnic and religious minority, who have fled into the hills of Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq to avoid being slaughtered by ISIS. On Aug. 9 he made a follow-up statement  to prepare the public for what will be an extended operation. (President’s remarks here .)
Using Predator drones and Navy F-18 fighter jets, the U.S. has launched airstrikes against ISIS forces around Erbil, a Kurdish city in northern Iraq where U.S. advisers are stationed. (The Kurds, long persecuted by Saddam Hussein, have been friendly to the U.S. since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)
The American objectives at this time are primarily humanitarian and strategic: to prevent more deaths among the starving and dehydrated Yazidis, and to halt the already unnerving incursion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS , also known as ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) into northern Iraq. ISIS is a militant Sunni group founded in 2006 with ties to Al Qaeda—in fact they called themselves Al Qaeda in Iraq—but Al Qaeda has disowned ISIS as too extreme. (Indeed, it is difficult to say whether “Iraq” as we have known it still exists, as ISIS has declared a “caliphate,” an Islamic state, that includes both Syria and Iraq; they have effectively erased the border  between the two nations.) ISIS’s blitzkrieg through northern Iraq in early June alarmed the Pentagon and White House enough that Obama ordered some 300 armed forces personnel to Baghdad to protect the U.S. embassy, then about 500 more personnel later. (See “Obama Sends Troops to Protect U.S. Embassy in Baghdad ” 6/17/14.)
Sometimes It’s Not Easy Saying No
We want very much to oppose this new use of U.S. military force in Iraq, but it’s complicated, and it’s hard to say Absolutely No. For one thing, we trust the judgment of this president who is so reluctant to send U.S. forces into action—in Iraq of all places, from which he worked hard to extricate our too-long-entrenched troops. This is partly a humanitarian mission—we agree with humanitarian missions in principle—and also, whether we like it or not, the United States is obligated to help clean up a mess that Obama’s neocon predecessors started by the mad, obsessive rush to war against Iraq in 2003.
“Complicated” doesn’t begin to describe the current predicament, but if the U.S. can help ease Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite, out of office and help coordinate Iraqis’ organizing in a more representative government in Iraq, one that comprises Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish representatives, then the fury of ISIS may abate somewhat. For now, however, Maliki refuses to relinquish or even to consider sharing power. To a great extent, Maliki is the problem, but he’s not the only problem.
We feel strongly that the U.S. must not get involved (any more than we are already secretly, covertly involved) in the Syrian civil war. ISIS’s commanders apparently are based in Syria. We think President Obama was right  to pull back from firing on Syria last year around Labor Day when he gave signals that the U.S. was about to fire on Syria for having used chemical weapons against their people. (See “Congress, Now Is the Time to Vote ‘Hell No’ ” 9/4/13) Obama had unwisely said that such would be a “red line” that Bashar al Assad could not be allowed to cross. Just because the president misspoke, however, did not obligate him to go ahead and make further mistakes by escalating a highly complicated conflict. America’s involvement would just blow the whole thing up, and we think Obama was right to step back, however embarrassing it was for the administration, and even though it added more ammunition to the conservative hawks like John McCain and Lindsey Graham who criticize Obama’s foreign policy no matter what he does.
We Kind of Owe It to Them, After All
The United States has been involved in Iraq since at least the mid twentieth century, well before Saddam Hussein. In 1960 the CIA was making plans to incapacitate the communist-inclined dictator Abd al-Karim Qasim, who in 1958 had deposed the Iraqi monarchy that had been friendly to the West. (Oil, remember.) See “Plan to Oust Qasim” in Wikipedia’s entry here . (The CIA and the U.K. had engineered a coup in Iran in 1953  to overthrow democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh; why stop there?)
As with Iran next door, U.S. relations with Iraq have long been complicated and murky, to say the least, but our nation has interfered with Iraq’s internal affairs in order to have access to oil—the primary reason for the 2003 invasion, after all—and it seems to us only fair that the United States try to help restore some order in a nation where we have wrought untold damage. Now, whatever is done will naturally be tilted primarily in what is perceived as the United States’s best interests, but if it must be done, we would sooner trust a Democratic administration to handle the cleanup than the other party; we saw how well Republicans handled matters when George W. Bush was in office.
We kind of owe it to the Iraqis to give some protection and assistance in cleaning up a mess largely of our making, but for how long, and at what cost? We don’t pretend to know, and we remain profoundly uneasy about the whole affair.
ISIS’s Real “Shock and Awe”
Addendum: At Talking Points Memo , a reader who has worked as a U.S. military intelligence and counter-terrorism specialist in Iraq since the late 1980s writes in to explain who ISIS (or ISIL) are and why they have been so successful in sweeping bloodily through Iraq. He also makes clear why the Kurdish Peshmerga, who have a reputation as fierce fighters (and were allies of the U.S. against Saddam Hussein and Islamic insurgents), need help against ISIS:
As for ISIS, they are just a resurgent and re-named al-Qaeda in Iraq. They have the same combat capability they have always had. They fight with suicide bombers, AK-47s and RPG-7 rocket launchers, single vehicle long range battlefield rocket launchers and are mobile in what we call TTFs – Toyota Task Forces. They use extremely simple Taliban inspired “complex attack’ tactics. First they collect intelligence, covertly move into position, launch a wave of suicide bombers to breach gates and soften the objective up, then they bombard with battlefield rockets and launch a multiprong “Allahu Akhbar” infantry attack supported by heavy machineguns on Toyotas. . . .
Why is ISIL so successful? Simply put they attack using simple combined arms but they hold two force multipliers – suicide bombers and a psychological force multiplier called TSV – Terror Shock Value. TSV is the projected belief (or reality) that the terror force that you are opposing will do anything to defeat you and once defeated will do the same to your family, friends and countrymen. . . .
Keep reading at Talking Points Memo  . . .