Obama and the Never-Ending War
By limiting U.S. goals in Iraq and Syria, the president makes less likely the exit he so desperately wants.
I have two grown daughters. Neither can remember a moment in which the United States did not have troops deployed in the Middle East. One was 10 months old at the time the first Gulf War effectively commenced with Operation Desert Shield in August 1990. I remember watching televised reports from Operation Desert Storm the following February while sitting in a hospital room in New York shortly after the delivery of her sister.
The girls were in elementary school when the 9/11 attacks occurred that led to our commitments to fight in Afghanistan and later in Iraq. And last night, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of those attacks, President Barack Obama — elected in large part to bring American troops home from the Middle East — announced with palpable reluctance and grim resolve another open-ended commitment of the U.S. military to go to war in the region.
Judging from the president’s words and the complexity of the fight America is now entering, it seems likely that my daughters’ generation — that of the young members of the U.S. military who will serve in this latest conflict — will themselves welcome their own children into a world in which American troops are still fighting in the desert battlegrounds in and around Iraq.
This was not what Barack Obama had envisioned for his presidency. But the threat posed by the rise of the radical jihadist Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq has proven too great to ignore. The deaths of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, have galvanized public attention and offered graphic testimony to the manifest evil of the extremists’ tactics and intentions. The fact that IS, during the course of the past year, has gained control of large swaths of Iraq and is threatening to install its self-described caliphate in the heart of an already volatile region created a strategic threat — not only to American interests but also to a broad cross-section of U.S. allies and rivals in the region. As the Islamic State rampaged — virtually unchecked — across the Levant in recent months, it became clear not only that something must be done but that there might be a ready coalition in place to help do it.
Still, Barack Obama held back. The carnage of Syria, the crucible in which the Islamic State was forged, had been as horrific a humanitarian crisis as had emerged during his watch as president. His advisors, notably former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA director David Petraeus, urged him to take action to help contain the devastation. And yet, he had also held back then. Last year, the president almost acted against the Damascus regime, but even then, even in the face of chemical weapons atrocities, he was so committed to resisting the lure of this region’s unending wars that he pulled back at the last minute from even a fairly modest military intervention.
Getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan was what he had entered the White House to do. If anything, Obama had pressed to get every last troop out of Iraq before Baghdad was ready to handle its own security problems, before it had resolved its own internal political problems. If the prior administration had erred in the direction of being too quick to intervene, Obama was the opposite. Even when he did take action, as in Libya, he got out so quickly that more chaos followed. Wearied by a generation at war, this president (who was still in law school when the first Gulf War began, who was himself of a generation who had spent its entire adult life witnessing these distant wars), viscerally felt the country had no appetite for more.
That is why it is so important to look at Obama’s remarks last night outside the politics of the moment, to set aside one’s personal feelings about his competence or choices as a president thus far, and to see them in a historical context. It is hard to imagine an American president more committed to not deepening this country’s involvement in the Middle East. Yet there he was. And here we were again.
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Seeking, as ever, to avoid the perceived mistakes of the Bush era and to minimize risks, Obama laid out a plan that called for a coalition of nations to pool their resources to fight the Islamic State. It had four elements: airstrikes, more support for ground forces (not American), ramped-up efforts to fight terrorism, and increased humanitarian assistance. Obama announced that he would chair a U.N. Security Council meeting to win international support for the effort and that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel the world seeking to expand the coalition and deepen its capabilities and resources.
And, he made clear, the United States will avoid fighting this war like the last Iraq war. Rather, he asserted, it will be more like the American effort against terrorists in Yemen and Somalia — conflicts in which drones, intelligence, and limited special operations involvement have surgically chipped away at enemies without exposing ground troops to the risks of conventional battles.
That was supposed to be a source of comfort. And it was totally understandable in the political and psychological context of a speech intended to convince the American public of the necessity of this conflict but also assure them another massive engagement like the last Iraq War was not in the offing.
Yet the reality is that was that while Barack Obama is acutely aware of, and inclined to avoid, the pitfalls of his predecessors — and even as he took a strong stand not just against terror but against his own past policies in Syria and Iraq — the speech has raised as many questions as it answered: particularly as he has yet to acknowledge many other of his administration’s prior errors and misfires.
The president’s address offered inevitable platitudes about leadership and resolve, but the examples it offered were oddly not comforting. He spoke of American prowess fighting terror — even as he noted its spread throughout the region (official assessments in recent days that the Islamic State may pose a greater threat than al Qaeda only add to this dissonant message).
His desire to ensure limits on U.S. actions, while understandable, has repeatedly undercut his effectiveness in the region. Indeed, it was troubling to note that, despite the advice to the contrary of senior experts with whom he met prior to the speech, a substantial portion of his remarks were devoted to what this new intervention was not going to be. (That is a classic Obama wrong note: the "here’s what I’m not going to do" disclaimer.) Too narrowly defining the source of our risk is a related critical error. Call it Bogeyman Syndrome. We pick one bad guy we seek to "degrade and destroy" (same language with core al Qaeda and in last night’s speech) and downplay at our peril the fact that the nature of militant extremism is a decentralized network of loosely affiliated entities that are designed to survive the degradation and defeat of any individual component.
The president’s speech came as much in response to his own recent comment that he had no strategy for dealing with the Islamic State as it did to the actual threat posed by it. But a list is not a strategy.
A strategy requires achievable goals and a plan to realize them. A good U.S. national security strategy also should be built around an outcome that enduringly advances national interests. This speech lacked several key components in both respects. It did not specify who was in the coalition that would help achieve our goals or what the division of labor would be among the participants. Most glaringly in this respect, it did not address the issue of who would be providing the critical "boots on the ground" component of the coalition, the ones our air power would support. There is no strategy without them. There is also no good strategy if, by default, they end up being bad guys who pose a different kind of threat — as would be the case if we end up being the air force for the Syrian regime in its battle with IS, or with Iranian troops, or with Iranian-led Iraqi troops (as has already been the case in Mosul and Amerli).
The speech also posited an end game where empowered Sunnis in Iraq would fill the political void left by the destruction of the Islamic State — even though the idea that the government in Baghdad will embrace and actively support such a reality is wishful fantasy. (Who replaces IS in Syria, or how we train up an alternative to Assad after so many years of delay, poses another grave challenge.)
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But even were these problems to be addressed successfully, the bigger issue is that the threat to regional stability and U.S. interests is not posed by the Islamic State alone but by all the extremist groups in the regions — Hamas, Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda, Ansar al-Shariah, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the list goes on. Defeating just one only leaves us where we would be with the destruction of core al Qaeda. But the problems lie even deeper. The president may want to cherry-pick his enemy of the moment, but members of our would-be "coalition" — like key Gulf Allies or Jordan — are willing to participate only to the degree that the effort extends beyond IS to the broader threats that are of greater concern to them. If we drag our feet on this expanded target list (as we will), so will they.
More problematically, some possible members of this coalition (see: Qatar, Turkey) actively support some of these other groups. Combine that with the fact that our actions may actually help advance the interests of Iran, Shiites in Iraq, and Assad in Syria — all anathema to key members of the coalition — and you can’t help but conclude that holding this group together will be much more difficult than actually convening it. (To be honest, we’re not even doing that. Many have been clamoring for U.S. involvement in these issues for years. America claiming "leadership" in organizing this group is like the last one to show up at a party declaring himself the host. It’s just as dubious a concept as the president’s assertion that the world should take heart in our leadership because we’re the ones who "led" the strong response to Putin in Ukraine … an idea almost whimsical in its disregard for lessons of how to show leadership and strength.)
The result is that once again the undoubtedly well-intentioned instincts of Barack Obama have run up against the harsh, complex realities of a Middle East in which no conflict has only two sides or a good outcome that doesn’t create new risks. It would be hard for the president to admit, but this is precisely the problem that confounded each of his predecessors during the past two decades. Each responded to the challenges differently and none could achieve the outcomes they sought.
Hence, there is only one conclusion one can draw from last night’s speech: What Obama began last night will be left to another president to finish. And it will continue to be a troubling constant in the life of a generation of Americans who have never known life without their countrymen engaged in military action in the Middle East.