When a dashing young Senator from Illinois spoke against a “dumb war” of a dumb President, we believed him. We thought President Obama would serve as a long-overdue antidote to America’s addiction to war. Once in the Oval Office, Obama slowly and deliberately implemented his plan for the withdrawal of the hated American troops from Mesopotamia. Even in Afghanistan—the “good war”—he is bringing the US occupation to a close; although with an ill-advised fetish for the calendar. The American bootprint in Eurasia has declined steadily since the high-tide of Bush’s “surge.”
There is no appetite in the United States for large-scale stabilization operations overseas. In 2011, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates declared: “Any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.” Despite widespread calls for American military intervention in Libya, Mali, and Syria, the United States could not be pressed into anything more than airstrikes. Even as Isis gets busy forging a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, President Obama has flatly ruled out the deployment of ground forces.
This is not the worst thing in the world. American combat troops have always been more useful to deter adversaries and prevent escalation—they have kept the peace between major powers in Eurasia since World War II—than in large-scale pacification campaigns. Prompted by dubious theories and imperial hubris, the deployment of American troops at any appreciable scale in the Third World has invariably been a harbinger for chaos. American pacification campaigns have left millions of dead bodies strewn across the globe—without an iota of strategic gains to show for it. If Washington has been inoculated against ground wars in poor countries for the foreseeable future, surely that is an unambiguous good?
No. Here’s why. There are some problems which cannot be solved without the application of military power. The Isis caliphate is an unambiguous security threat to everyone from Iran to America. It will serve as a breeding ground for Islamic terror. These guys are way out there on Neptune; beyond other run-of-the-mill Islamist extremists—Jabhat al-Nusra, Boko Haram, al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, the Haqqani network, Abu Sayyaf—already a pretty scary lot. This is not hyperbole. To celebrate their victory in Mosul, Isis carried out mass executions of anyone and everyone they suspected of working for the government, or breathing while Shi’a. They claimed to have slaughtered 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, burying them into hastily dug mass graves—sixty of which can be identified from the photos gleefully posted by the group on the Internet.
It has come to light that the White House only plans to carry out significant airstrikes against the Isis if they threaten Baghdad. What this means is that the United States is ready to tolerate the Isis forging a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East, as long as it doesn’t threaten the existence of the Iraqi rump state to the south. It is one thing for President Obama to rule out the deployment of ground forces. Quite another to cede the ground to the Isis.
If President Obama really wants out, he has to give the green light for the Iranians to go in. Indeed, letting strong states in the region do the job is preferable to sending American forces back in. Iran has a very strong interest in preserving the Iraqi state. By contrast, both Turkey and the Kurds would rather not engage the Isis. But the United States has been working to contain Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. That this is counter-productive is clear. Indeed, Senator Lindsey Graham of the GOP has suggested cooperating with Iran in order to help Iraqi forces hold Baghdad. That still doesn’t go far enough—the Isis needs to be pushed back out of Iraq and hunted down. Either do the job yourself, or allow those who are willing, to do it.
Privileging keeping the score with the Islamic Republic of Iran over genuine security interests is an extremely pig-headed approach to international affairs. The White House would do well to remember Palmerston’s sage advice to the British House of Commons in 1848:
It is a narrow policy to believe that this country or that has marked out the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy. We have no eternal allies and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and these interests it is our duty to follow.