The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

300 advisers is still a military intervention

The best thing the U.S. can do now is stay out.

They don’t need American help: Iraqi soldiers on parade in Baghdad. (Karim Kadim/AP)
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President Obama promises that there will be no re-invasion of Iraq, no boots on the ground. For now he is even holding back airstrikes. But he is still deploying up to 300 U.S. “military advisers” to Iraq. Whatever he wants to call it, this is still a military intervention. And it will leave the Iraqi people no better off than any of previous American adventures in that country.

The president promises a small detachment. This shouldn’t be any comfort. His presidency has been defined by the use of small teams of elite soldiers, backed up by heavy surveillance and drone strikes; this has become the signature U.S. foreign-intervention strategy. Under Obama, the use of covert Special Operations teams has skyrocketed, with forces now deployed in as many as 75 countries. The Joint Special Operations Command is now the favored way to prosecute the war on terror. Its work in dozens of countries (without formal declarations) adds up to an assertion that the U.S. may deploy troops, capture, detain, interrogate and kill those it deems terrorists anywhere in the world. Obama’s “advisers” will be collecting intelligence that they might use in exactly those types of operations.

From a purely American point of view, this strategy may seem preferable to long deployments of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. But whether a missile is launched from a Blackhawk over Fallujah or a drone base in Las Vegas matters little if you’re the person on the receiving end.

In his news conference, Obama criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for stoking sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shia Iraqis, and claimed that the U.S. was entering Iraq to help prevent civil war. This is amazingly hypocritical. The U.S. has been quite content to let ISIS fight both Bashar al-Assad’s forces and other revolutionary groups in Syria, so its sudden concern about the Islamist group’s role in civil war, now that it threatens the government of a nominal U.S. ally, seems disingenuous.

Furthermore, the U.S. itself did everything in its power to push Iraq into a sectarian civil war starting in 2005, including setting up the government structure Maliki now controls. Faced with the prospect of a united Sunni-Shia guerilla resistance to its occupation, the U.S. enlisted a veteran of Latin America’s dirty wars, Col. James Steele, who filled the ranks of Iraq’s police force with fighters from various Shia militias and deliberately deployed them against the Sunni sections of the resistance in what turned into a wave of detentions, torture and murder. The divide-and-conquer strategy was eventually successful, transforming a country with little history of communal violence into the site of a bloody three-year sectarian conflict that at its height claimed 3,000 civilian lives a month. Is it any wonder that the Sunnis revile the Shia-led government?

So violent has the Maliki government been in its repression of the Sunni areas that some residents of Mosul welcomed ISIS’s takeover of the city. “[W]e are so happy to have them rather than having Maliki’s bloody, brutal forces,” Ali Aziz, a resident of Mosul, told The Guardian. “I feel we have been liberated from an awful nightmare that was suffocating us for 11 years. The army and the police never stopped arresting, detaining and killing people.”

Ordinary Americans following the news from Iraq may understandably feel a desire for the U.S. to “do something.” But other than paying reparations for two devastating wars and 13 years of sanctions, there is nothing positive the U.S. government can do in Iraq. The tools for healing sectarian rifts and rebuilding a shattered country do not exist within the toolbox of the U.S. military. Any number of U.S. troops or advisers will merely add fuel to the flame. The best thing the U.S. can do now is stay out.