President Obama’s commitment to go into Iraq and Syria to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, the brutal terrorist group that vows to carve a “caliphate” out of Iraq and Syria, should be seen for what it is: a capitulation to bellicose folly.
Obama was elected in no small part because he challenged the catastrophic “war of choice” in Iraq, and pledged to bring an end to U.S. entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Slowly, against the bluster and macho posturing of the opposition, he tried to introduce a modicum of common sense and prudence into our foreign policy.
The United States, the president has explained in the past, faces few genuine threats to its national security. Many of these — catastrophic climate change, global economic stagnation — aren’t susceptible to military solution. Nor can the United States afford to police the world. “Why is it,” he observed in April, “that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?”
And a month later in a commencement speech at West Point, he elaborated: “Some of our most costly mistakes came ... from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences — without building international support and legitimacy for our action; without leveling with the American people about the sacrifices required.”
Now Obama has announced a “strategy” toward the Islamic State that rushes into a military adventure without sufficient thought of the consequences, and without building robust international support. Arguing that he doesn’t need congressional approval, he is taking us into a war we don’t need to fight.
His strategy may well “degrade” the Islamic State, a loathsome, brutal, vicious group, but, according to U.S. intelligence, the organization already poses no immediate threat to the United States. Unlike al-Qaeda, from which the Islamic State has split, it is focused on the spreading sectarian wars in the Middle East, not on targeting the United States.
The president calls for U.S. bombing of Islamic State positions in both Iraq and in Syria (scorning international law in the process). To provide the foot shoulders for the battle, the president pledges yet more training and arms for the Shiite-dominated Iraqi military, while arming the Shiite militia, the Sunni tribes and the Kurdish pesh merga in Iraq, and so-called “moderate” rebel forces in Syria. The United States will try to enlist Sunnis against the Islamic State even as we bomb Sunni villages that the Islamic State holds. We’ll try once more to create a more inclusive government in Baghdad, something that proved impossible when we had thousands of U.S. forces on the ground there. We’ll enlist reluctant pro-Sunni allies — Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — to fight the Sunni-dominated Islamic State, although Saudi sources are leading funders of the Islamic State’s predecessors and Turkey has refused to cut off the group’s black market oil revenues. We will stiff pro-Shiite adversaries — Syria and Iran — that are already enlisted in the fight against the Islamic State.
Our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan should have made one thing clear: We have neither the patience, the resources nor the willingness to wreak the violence needed to suppress the regional sectarian conflicts. For more than a decade, we have spent trillions, sacrificed lives and rained bombs on assorted targets from Pakistan to Libya. And the civil wars, tribal rivalries and sectarian violence have only increased.
The conflicts will stop only when the people who live in these many countries, and the powers that fuel the proxy wars, decide the violence must end. The United States can’t create peace by military force. We can only add to the destruction.
Instead, the president is surrendering to three forces: first, a media lathered into a war fever, parading an endless array of armchair warriors to inflate the threat, demand military response, and scorn patience and diplomacy. The Islamic State’s gruesome beheadings of two American journalists helped increase the drumbeat for war, finally moving public opinion to support bombing — but not troops. “We’re going to war because we’ve been spooked,” Joshua Landis, a Syrian specialist at the University of Oklahoma, noted.
Second, he is yielding to the “indispensable nation” crowd of liberal interventionists, seized with moral outrage at the horrors of terrorists like the Islamic State, but blind to the innocents killed and displaced in our military response. They drove us into Libya to forestall a humanitarian disaster and left a spreading violent sectarian and tribal conflict in their wake.
And finally, the president is capitulating to the mindless bellicosity of his opposition. The neo-conservatives who drove us into Iraq and learned nothing from the debacle lead the chorus for war. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his wingman, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who have a terrible track record on foreign policy, now accuse Obama of “reactive half-measures,” while ruling out “unilateral invasion, occupation or nation building,” suggesting that Afghanistan — the United States’ longest war, which will leave chaos behind — should be our model. We are ill served by Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), who preposterously accuses the president and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton of advocating “isolationism,” while saying we should “not rule anything out” in the fight against the Islamic State. To accuse this president of isolationism after he has deployed drones to bomb in eight countries, increased troop levels into Afghanistan, intervened in Libya, and dispatched ships to police the South China Sea in Asia exhibits the mindless macho posturing that the president rightly warned us against.
Needless to say, this decision to wade back to war in Iraq and Syria should be debated and voted upon by the Congress. Sadly, the arrogance of the imperial executive has too often been reinforced by the cowardice of the Congress. The decision to postpone deliberation until after the election, for a lame debate in a lame duck Congress, is a sad testament to that. And the president’s capitulation virtually ensures that muscle flexing will supplant common sense in that debate.
President Obama is neither peacenik nor isolationist. He has disappointed those who trusted his promise to end the wars, stop the torture and rendition, close Guantanamo Bay, respect the Constitution, and curb the excesses of the national security state. But he did seek to limit our folly. He suggested a sensible organizing principle: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” It is tragic for him and for this country that he has succumbed to doing just that.
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