- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
President Barack Obama took a big gamble in recommitting U.S. forces into combat in Iraq’s civil war. I think he made the right choice, and so do the American people (so far). Despite being told over and over again by pundits that they must oppose all uses of American military power because they are "war weary," ordinary Americans somehow seem to have overcome their collective fatigue to support Obama’s airstrikes, albeit with obvious limits (see here and here). Those and other polls indicate that the public holds Obama’s overall handling of foreign policy and Iraq in very low esteem, but they support the use of military power to confront a threat that Obama’s attorney general has described as "more frightening than anything [he has] seen as attorney general."
So Obama clearly has the political running room he needs for this abrupt about-face in Iraq. Yet whether it is wise policy to join combat in Iraq once again depends on how you answer a few crucial questions.
First, is it plausible that we could by our action or inaction meaningfully lower the desire of the Islamic State (IS) to attack us? Some members of Obama’s team clearly bought into — and may be still buy into — the view that IS had and has geographically limited ambitions: establishing a new caliphate in the Middle East. While this was an obvious threat to U.S. regional partners and allies, it did not mean IS would be interested in attacking the United States itself, provided that we stayed out. Is that a reasonable bet? Does IS view us as an enemy because we allegedly pursue a foreign policy of hegemony in the Middle East — a policy objective that restraint advocates recommend we jettison regardless of IS — or does IS view us as an enemy because of other values and global interests we hold and would continue to hold even if, say, Ron Paul were president? How far down the path of radical restraint would the United States have to go to be deemed "not worthy of IS hostility"? In other words, shouldn’t we expect that a group that is committing the atrocities IS commits with abandon will always be implacably hostile to even the most restrained U.S.?
Second, is it reasonable to expect that IS will take a very long time to develop the skill sets and orientation of, say, an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, arguably the biggest threat to the homeland this very minute? Or is it more reasonable to expect that IS will fairly quickly acquire those skills? Even if you concede that IS will eventually pose a threat to the U.S. homeland, you could still talk yourself out of confronting the group militarily if you could convince yourself that it is a "jayvee" threat and it will take a long time for the group to develop "Kobe Bryant" skills. Obama candidly acknowledged that he had persuaded himself of this view until very recently. It is likely that until the last couple of weeks, he thought IS was a problem he could hand off to his successor a few years hence and would not need to deal with on his own watch.
Third, even if you decide IS wants to strike the U.S. homeland and is no longer a "jayvee" threat that can be disregarded, one can still opt against a military response if you believe IS can be deterred. After all, al Qaeda central decided to attack the United States, and look what happened to it: a dozen years of the Global War on Terror brought Osama bin Laden to justice and reduced core AQ to a shell of its former self. Perhaps IS will learn from this and decide not to risk attacking the United States. How big a bet should we make that they have learned the lesson of AQ and will refrain from attacking the "far enemy" (us) for fear of what we will do in response?
Fourth, even if you decide IS cannot be deterred indefinitely, does it make more sense to confront the group sooner when the answers are uncertain rather than later when the answers are obvious to all? The lesson President George W. Bush learned from 9/11 is that it is better to confront sooner rather than wait until threats gather, by which time they could pose even bigger problems. This led to Iraq. The lesson Obama learned from Iraq is that acting sooner can mean you act on uncertain or even inaccurate information. Better to wait until you have unambiguous and unimpeachable evidence, even if this means missing crucial windows of opportunity. This led to Syria. Which lesson is best suited to IS?
Obama’s team has obviously been divided on these questions for months, if not years. But in deciding to join with the rising tide of war in Iraq, Obama clearly came down with answers that pointed to military intervention — at least for now and at least in a limited way.
This raises a fifth question that will be answered in the coming weeks: Is Obama’s military action sufficient for the challenge, or will more be required?