Perhaps the new decade will bring new battles for the same turf. If so, I’m sure we’ll win the fourth or even fifth time. We’re America. We’re good at violence. At fighting hard. Expelling insurgents from cities in Iraq or districts in Afghanistan. But we’re not good at making sure the violence leads to long-term stability.
That’s why I found it hard to welcome the recent airstrike in Iraq that killed Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander, despite all the blood on his hands. Violence is a destabilizing tool, Iraq is a volatile country, and when I ask myself how this strike might contribute to our long-term goals in the region, I have difficulty coming up with good answers. Watching President Trump’s speech Wednesday morning in response to Iran’s retaliatory missiles fired at U.S. troops in Iraq, wherein he bragged about our military capabilities but barely mentioned the situation on the ground, didn’t clarify much.
In theory, our presence there now, 17 years after the Iraq War began, is primarily about countering the Islamic State (which joined the insurgency against the U.S. occupation in 2004, about a year after President George W. Bush declared that our first mission there was accomplished). When Donald Trump was campaigning against Hillary Clinton in 2016, he even claimed to have a “secret plan” to defeat the group. But I’d seen insurgent groups “defeated” before, and so when I had a chance, at NBC’s 2016 “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” to ask Trump a question, I didn’t ask about that plan. I asked what would happen next, after he sent troops to bleed and die and kill securing towns and villages overseas. What would he do to ensure that the insurgents didn’t just come back? He gave a rambling answer, criticizing Barack Obama’s pullout from Iraq and blaming it for the Islamic State’s rise, before declaring we should have “taken the oil.”
In the years since, Trump’s strategic thinking doesn’t seem to have advanced much. The Islamic State has been stripped of its territory; Trump’s “secret plan” turned out to be continuing Obama’s policy of airstrikes and deployments of Special Operations troops in support of local forces, and from a purely military perspective, it may have worked. But the situation remains fragile. Even before the airstrike that killed Soleimani, Iraq was in a dangerous state of flux. Massive protests demanding wide-ranging reforms challenged the political class, a refugee crisis strained resources, and sectarian militias intimidated, harassed or killed civilians. Last month, while I was on a trip there, Iraqi officials, former Iraqi military commanders, international aid workers and small-town mayors all repeated the same worry to me: that without further stabilization efforts to allow people to return home, the camps for displaced people would become incubators for new insurgencies.
Then there are the cross-border problems. In a refugee camp in northern Iraq, I met a Syrian who’d been injured in a rocket strike after Trump withdrew U.S. forces from northern Syria and allowed Turkey to invade; he told me, “There was security when the U.S. was in Syria, but the U.S. betrayed us.” He had six metal pins sticking out of his leg, from upper thigh to knee, and was living in a tent with his pregnant wife and two children, awaiting the deepening winter with trepidation. His people, the Kurds, had fought with Americans against the Islamic State, only to watch us turn our backs on them. But, he warned, “ISIS will come back.” If that’s true, the Obama-Trump policy, reliant on local allies, will be a harder sell.
And so once again, having spent blood and treasure achieving tactical successes in the Middle East, we are faced with the question of how we might secure some strategic benefit. Or at the very least prevent a relapse into utter chaos. And the Trump administration’s answer seems to be erratic violence inflicted across the region.
The current cycle of escalation between the United States and Iran, with Iraq as the battlefield, suggests the limits of this approach. The Iraqi prime minister declared the recent airstrikes a “flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty,” the parliament voted 170 to 0 in favor of expelling U.S. troops from the country, and NATO forces working with Iraqi soldiers fighting the Islamic State began exiting. Adding to the mess, the U.S. military accidentally released a draft memo incorrectly stating that American troops were preparing to leave, too. Trump did insist in his Wednesday speech that he wanted to work with the Iranians on the mission against the Islamic State, the only thing in Iraq our president claimed to care about (aside from oil) when he was campaigning. But recent events have put that mission in jeopardy.
Watching our Iraq maneuvers unfold, it seems clear that, more than three years after I asked Trump how he might avoid repeating what he considered Obama’s failures in Iraq, the president still has no clear answer. It’s a terrible thing, having no rational foreign policy in a volatile region where you are regularly killing people. Nevertheless, as the military prepares to send more troops to the Middle East, I wonder if Obama could honestly have answered my question much better. After all, though our previous president was less erratic than this one, Obama’s Middle East policy was hardly the epitome of coherence — withdrawing and then quietly ramping up military support to Iraq, proclaiming the virtues of American soft power while slashing nonmilitary assistance, all the while evading discussion of the war and its costs.
At an event in May 2015, when the campaign against the Islamic State was already in full swing, I listened to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice tell a room full of active-duty troops, including several severely injured soldiers, some missing legs or ears blown off in bomb blasts, that “one of our proudest accomplishments as an administration was ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Someone in the audience snorted in laughter. (It was clearly an administration talking point — two months later, the president claimed, “We’ve ended two wars.”)
Afterward, I chatted with a furious, wheelchair-bound soldier with (partial) functionality in only one limb. He thought Rice had lied to our faces. But neither of us should have been surprised. Lying casually to the public about war is a privilege Americans have granted the executive branch.
Right now, it seems the president can do almost anything under the dangerously broad powers afforded him by the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Under Obama, that meant airstrikes in support of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, support for a war against Iranian-backed forces in Yemen, and whatever the hell our policy was in Syria, all at the same time, mostly against groups that didn’t exist in 2002, while pretending we weren’t at war anywhere. Under Trump, it means killing Iran’s most important general on Iraqi soil. Who knows what it will mean for whomever holds office in 2021?
In 2014, when Congress was considering a new authorization for the fight against the Islamic State, advocacy groups insisted on a sunset clause, geographic limits and reporting requirements to provide transparency about the mission, its progress and its costs. But Congress did nothing, and so we have come to the present day — when, in a classified briefing Wednesday on Soleimani’s death that even two Republican senators described as “un-American” and “an insult to the Constitution,” the administration suggested that the president had no need for congressional approval of military action against Iran. (Late Thursday, the House passed new limits on Trump’s war powers against Iran, but a similar measure is unlikely to pass in the Senate, and it’s not clear how effective it would be if it did.)
With such anemic congressional oversight, is it any wonder our wars have been handled so poorly, that overseas conflicts grow out of control and that the public notices only when disaster looms? A nation unwilling to hold itself accountable perhaps deserves incoherent policy. But the Iraqi people, who will bear the brunt of the coming violence, do not.