Treating the Symptoms, Letting the Sickness Mutate

President Obama's limited engagement in Iraq is an insult to the people of Syria -- and does nothing to help prevent further violence.


There is an ominous feel to President Barack Obama’s announcement last night of airstrikes in Iraq: The president who bragged relentlessly about ending wars is wading into another one. Like the last president to commit military forces in Iraq, he seems to believe the force he is willing to commit is all that the enemy will demand of us, so he limits America’s involvement by limiting its means. But unlike the last president to commit military forces in Iraq, Obama seems to have no political end state this military operation is designed to achieve. It is not a recipe for success.

In fact, it most closely approximates the president’s involvement in Libya in 2011, except done without allies or a strategy for ending the violence that is causing Iraq’s humanitarian crisis. At least in Libya we built a coalition to share the risk and burden of our involvement. And at least in Libya the use of military force was connected to a means of ending the threat to civilians — regime change that displaced Muammar al-Qaddafi. In Iraq, however, we are dealing only with the symptom of the Islamic State’s (IS) violence, not preventing the violence that is causing this humanitarian and political crisis.

As a strictly military operation, it is sensible to threaten retaliation against any interference in our aid deliveries. Clearly conveying what you will do is important in war. If the message is credible, it can change the enemy’s calculus and reduce misperceptions. But it is not sensible to telegraph the limits of what you will do, especially to an inferior adversary. The approach may make sense when confronting an adversary capable of escalation, such as nuclear powers fighting limited wars signaling to each other they will not escalate to Armageddon. But it makes no sense to tell IS what you will and will not do when the goal is to prevent a lesser power from continuing the activity that’s causing the problem.

The president could not have been clearer about the limits of our intervention: Airstrikes will be undertaken against Islamic State forces only if they attack Americans or interfere with our aid deliveries. Possibly we’ll help the Iraqi security forces, but only in the protection of Yazidis, not in the protection of other Iraqi civilians or beating back IS’s advances through the country. So IS is free to continue holding tens of thousands of displaced people captive, so long as they allow us to prevent them starving? And IS is free to continue its rampage through other Iraqi communities?

By portraying so clearly what the United States will do with airstrikes, we also make clear the huge range of what we will not do. And knowing how not to trigger U.S. airstrikes is a great benefit to IS planners. They are surely smart enough to ply the limits of our involvement to make us look powerless, as they have successfully done so far in both Iraq and Syria.

We attenuate the consequences of the Islamic State’s war — which may, perversely enough, allow it to continue. The antibodies extremists create in societies where they practice their intolerance cause people to take up arms and fight them. Confining our efforts to buffering the impact of war discourages people from fighting for themselves, which is the president’s ostensible objective.

Obama’s constraints on our use of military force will not solve the problems inherent in targeting IS: discriminating between targets, the difficulty of understanding a fast-changing battlefield from the air, and operating when we lack exclusive dominance of the airspace. That the Yazidis we are seeking to protect are encamped and surrounded will not be determinative; surely a military force brutal enough to commit mass murder would not hesitate to use those very civilians as human shields.

In addition to not seeming to comprehend the logic of war, the president seems not to understand what this limited use of military force will look like to the victims of this brutality that we are choosing not to help. President Obama only makes it worse with his grandiose claim that "America is coming to help." Does he have any idea how resentful that will make all the suffering Iraqis left out of our tiny assistance umbrella? What about the 180,000 people who have died in Syria? Can you even imagine how determined IS must be to illustrate how little the United States really cares about the outcome — or how powerless it is to prevent them from imposing their will?

What this stingy offer of assistance suggests is that, once again, the Obama administration will do just enough to placate its conscience. The president said, "We can act carefully and responsibly to prevent a potential act of genocide." And that is true. But war is a political act, and the Islamic State has grown and thrived in the political vacuum of Syria and Iraq. And yet the president’s policy treats this crisis as though it were a natural disaster.

Obama is once again back-footed by entirely predictable events. It was not difficult to foresee that IS would begin depredations against "infidels" — their agenda has been evident for more than a year in communities they took over in Syria. And one can’t stop this brutality with humanitarian airdrops. You stop this by beating IS into submission, building states capable of governance, and holding them steady for the years these practices require to take root. That is, by the very kind of policies President Obama has limited our involvement to preclude.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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