Return to Iraq

I was very disappointed to learn last week that the president had authorized a military re-engagement in Iraq. I know in some sense we’ve never really left any of the countries we’ve had armed conflicts in, as we seem to have military bases scattered all over the world in really peculiar places from a 21st-century perspective; it is nonetheless disheartening that this president who seems to pride himself on having drawn down our remaining forces in Iraq and Afghanistan publicly, while engaging in a covert drone war that is essentially Bush’s War on Terror 2.0, is ready to begin a new campaign of airstrikes in our old quagmire.

Look, I know that Republicans want America to flex its muscles any time a pretty girl walks down the beach or a bully starts kicking sand in the bespectacled eyes of a Euro- or Middle Eastern nerd, but there’s no point in doing any of this to satisfy the administration’s war-hawk critics if for no other reason than that it won’t. Those critics have made it abundantly clear now, six years into Obama’s presidency, that there is no action that he could take in either domestic or international quarters that would be the right action. If Iraq is destabilized and eventually taken over by ISIS, they will claim this is because of his early withdrawal of forces and that we failed to provide sufficient logistical or “boots-on-the-ground” support to the central government. If ISIS ceases pushing into unoccupied sections of Iraq in order to consolidate its gains on a temporary or permanent basis, they will declare that we should move quickly to take back Fallujah and Mosul from the “terrorists.” In any case, they will always blame anything that goes wrong on Obama’s alleged failure to project America’s strength throughout the world the way that <insert your favorite Republican candidate or former president here> would have done.

So we can safely ignore that nonsense. What about America’s “you broke it, you bought it” responsibilities? It should be abundantly clear to anyone who’s been paying even the slightest modicum of attention over the last 11 years that America’s nation-building efforts in the Middle East have been and will continue to be a colossal failure for a variety of reasons. The bottom line is that while we do bear some responsibility for the present state of Iraq, being the fragmented country that it was since the Allies drew its lines up after World War II, after we destroyed its infrastructure and the strong central government and replaced it with basically nothing. However we cannot seriously expect that another military engagement will result in anything other than more death, more destruction, and more misery for Iraqis. All we have to do is look at what happened in Bosnia to see how truly effective a campaign of airstrikes is for effecting political change. We would also do well to remember that the term “smart bomb” is a terrible oxymoron and however much we might like to pretend otherwise no airstrike will ever attain the precision that can be achieved with the physical presence of soldiers on the battlefield in a war zone. When we say that we’re using ┬átargeted airstrikes to destroy our enemies, what we really mean is that the lives of our soldiers are more valuable than the lives of the citizens that live in the countries of our enemies. That is an appalling calculus to make.

I wish there were a voice of reason in Washington, someone who would stand up and say, “There is nothing to be gained by taking half-measures and pretending that this makes us somehow better than everyone else.” War is not the answer because this is a civil war, albeit one being directed from across the Syrian border. If we intervened in every civil war across the world we could do nothing else–and we would be held accountable for the next tyrannical regime that would inevitably emerge from such a conflagration. It’s not isolationism to recognize that we have never been and never can be “the world’s policeman.” While I see no harm in unilateral humanitarian missions, there simply is no dividend from repeating Clinton’s mistakes of the 1990s.

Between the initial draft of this post and its imminent publication, America has apparently committed to putting combat troops on the ground in northern Iraq and staging relief efforts from an airfield located in the same area. The news gets worse and worse.