The Slippery Slope of U.S. Intervention

America's rescue mission in Iraq is going to be messier, longer, and more expensive than the White House wants to admit.

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Margaret Keith/U.S. Navy via Getty Images
Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Margaret Keith/U.S. Navy via Getty Images

During his recent hour-long interview with the New York Times‘s Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama mentioned something in passing when he described the need to be better prepared for post-conflict rebuilding and reconstruction before authorizing an intervention: "Our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do." Note the phrase I’ve italicized above — it’s an unnoticed but entirely remarkable acknowledgment from the commander-in-chief, because it is directly at odds with what he told the American people prior to, and just after, the start of the Libya intervention in 2011.

On March 21, 2011, Obama announced that the United States would pursue the formation of an international coalition to protect civilians from the security forces of Muammar al-Qaddafi: "I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing…. We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal — specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya." One week later, as the first bombs fell, he further described the U.S. mission: "The task that I assigned our forces [is] to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone," the president said. To which he added explicitly: "Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." That regime change was not the U.S. objective in Libya was repeated by the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon. As the White House spokesman famously argued, when asked why he would not call it a war, "It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners."

As I have pointed out previously, the U.S.-led coalition never imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, nor enforced an arms embargo. It initially did conduct airstrikes against massed Libyan ground forces that threatened civilian populations, and repeatedly attempted to kill Qaddafi by targeting his personal residency with cruise missiles — including on the second night of the campaign. Once Qaddafi’s security forces posed less of a direct threat to civilians in Benghazi — and, to a lesser extent, Misrata — NATO openly sided with the rebel forces in every way. This was done by never imposing an arms embargo against the rebels, and by providing tactical intelligence, planning support, and close air support — culminating with U.S. drone strikes on October 20, 2011, that hit the caravan carrying Qaddafi, after which rebels captured and extrajudicially murdered him.

This delayed admission by President Obama that the Libya intervention’s war aims expanded far beyond what he promised provides a useful reference point for citizens sifting through administration officials’ various justifications and objectives for the current intervention in Iraq. Indeed, after the president’s dramatic declaration on Aug. 7 that "America is coming to help," several policymakers and analysts pointed to the ambiguity of U.S. goals in Iraq, the quickly shifting purpose of the mission, and the lack of a timetable for engagement. Obama himself sealed this impression when he acknowledged on Aug. 9, "I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks, if that’s what you mean. I think this is going to take some time."

The expansion of humanitarian interventions — beyond what presidents initially claim will be the intended scope and time of military and diplomatic missions — is completely normal. What is remarkable is how congressional members, media commentators, and citizens are newly surprised each time that this happens. In the near term, humanitarian interventions often save more lives than they cost: The University of Pittsburgh’s Taylor Seybolt’s 2008 review of 17 U.S.-led interventions found that nine had succeeded in saving lives. But they also potentially contain tremendous downsides — as recent history demonstrates.

On April 7, 1991, the United States began airdropping food, water, and blankets on the largest refugee camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border that were sheltering Kurds displaced by Iraqi Republican Guard divisions brutally putting down an uprising in northern Iraq. That same day, when asked how long the U.S. military would play a role within Iraq, President George H.W. Bush declared, "We’re talking about days, not weeks or months." In support of the humanitarian mission in northern Iraq, the United States concurrently began enforcing a no-fly zone above that country’s 36th parallel. In August 1992, a U.S.-led no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel of Iraq was formed by unilateral declaration to compel Saddam Hussein’s cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors and to protect the Shiite population caught in a counterinsurgency campaign in the southern marshlands. Bush was right about the U.S. military involvement not being weeks or months: The northern and southern no-fly zones lasted another 10 and a half years.

In December 1992, when Bush announced the deployment of 28,000 U.S. troops to Somalia as part of the UNISOM peacekeeping force, he claimed, "Our mission has a limited objective: To open the supply routes, to get the food moving, and to prepare the way for a U.N. peacekeeping force to keep it moving." President Bill Clinton inherited this commitment as the peace enforcement and logistics effort was winding down, but then in June 1993, he approved of an expanded U.N. mandate to use all necessary means to capture or kill those responsible for the death of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers. (Clinton later claimed that then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, told him simply, "You ought to do this," and then retired the next week.) Two months later, Task Force Ranger, consisting of a few hundred elite U.S. Special Forces and special operators, was deployed on behalf of this new mission. The subsequent Black Hawk Down incident resulted in the death of 18 U.S. soldiers and several hundred Somalis. Within six months, all U.S. troops would be out of Somalia.

Clinton also inherited America’s commitment to a poorly designed and inadequately resourced U.N. protection peacekeeping strategy in the former Yugoslavia. Between February 1994 and May 1995, Clinton authorized five separate, limited military strikes against Serbian army and air force assets in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. These attacks are inherently difficult to analyze because they were guided by the unusual "dual-key" principle, whereby the U.N. secretary general (or a designated representative) approved of every NATO airstrike. Nevertheless, in none of the cases did they measurably degrade Serbia’s military capabilities, or deter them from further indiscriminate attacks against civilian-populated areas. It was only when NATO undertook its largest military mission ever, dropping 1,026 bombs over 17 days in August and September 1995, that the Dayton Peace Accords were signed to end the war. But the lesson of the limited utility of limited engagement still was not internalized in the White House.

In March 1999, Clinton administration officials believed that a few days of cruise missile attacks and airstrikes against Serbian military forces would compel President Slobodan Milosevic to accept NATO’s demands that all Serbian security forces withdraw from Kosovo and international peacekeepers be admitted to enforce the peace. On the first day of NATO’s attack, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated: "I don’t see this as a long-term operation…. The deter and damage is something that is achievable within a relatively short period of time." This assumption was based upon a fundamental misunderstanding — that persists to this day — of the role that airpower played in 1995 in ending the Yugoslav civil war. In reality, it was the combined Bosnian Muslim-Croatian ground offensive, which reduced the territory controlled by the Serbian Army from 70 percent to 45 percent, that drove Milosevic to Dayton.

(I was a contributor to the State Department’s Kosovo History Project, and, having read the cables and North Atlantic Council minutes from 1998 and 1999, I can attest that the Clinton administration’s faith that a few days of bombing would compel Milosevic to cave was widely held among U.S. allies.) In reality, rather than cave, Milosevic escalated the attacks against Kosovar civilian and rebel forces, and the air war over Serbia lasted 78 days. Airpower succeeded only after NATO tripled the aircraft committed and quintupled the strike sorties, between the start and end of the war, and effectively razed much of Serbia’s civilian infrastructure. As Thomas Friedman put it, "The war was won on the power grids of Belgrade, not in the trenches of Kosovo."

I would not consider the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to be humanitarian interventions, but full-scale invasions with the explicit goals of regime change, political transition, and reconstruction. Nevertheless, these wars were also sold and defended by downplaying the likely costs and duration. Most notoriously, the Iraq War was estimated by George W. Bush’s chief economic advisor, Lawrence B. Lindsey, to cost in total between $100 and $200 billion, which the Office of Management and Budget chief Mitchell Daniels Jr. then said was too high a figure. Later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rounded down the expenditure to "a number that’s something under $50 billion." The Pentagon chief also estimated, "I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days, or five weeks, or five months, but it certainly isn’t going to last any longer than that." He would be off by roughly $1 trillion dollars and a decade.

Now the United States is back using force in Iraq on behalf of humanitarian and force protection goals, but with no apparent comprehensive strategy to achieve some clearly articulated end state.

Three and a half years ago, Obama promised that military regime change was not the reason that the United States intervened in Libya, because that would have engendered tremendous opposition on Capitol Hill and among the American public. Rather, his singular military mission was centered on protecting civilians in Benghazi, which Obama told his advisors would entail airstrikes that would last "days, not weeks," according to a senior White House official. Today, President Obama’s clear omission of Nouri al-Maliki’s name as he welcomed "Prime Minister-designate" Haider al-Abadi might lead some to believe this latest U.S.-directed political transition is a fait accompli, but Maliki retains the loyalty of well-armed security forces within Baghdad. But if Iraq’s political leadership remains murky, what is less so is that Washington has now put skin in the game in negotiating this transition government.

When you listen to administration officials today, assume that their claims of a limited, relatively short, and narrowly scoped intervention will turn out to be false. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that, in reversing the threat posed by the Islamic State militants, "The president has taken no option off the table." Meanwhile, an anonymous official stated that White House conversations have focused on limiting the intervention, because, "[Obama] did not want to create a slippery slope." But, when the United States intervenes militarily in another country it does not have control over the decline or slipperiness of that slope. The two most likely outcomes of the most recent U.S. attacks in Iraq are that the lives of some civilians will be saved in the near term, and that there will be a military commitment larger and longer than what administration officials presently claim.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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