Just like President George W. Bush before him, and President Clinton before him, and President George H.W. Bush before him, President Obama is getting the U.S. involved militarily in Iraq. It started with drops of humanitarian supplies, proceeded to targeted bombings, and has now reached arms shipments to Kurdish militias who are reportedly in a fight for their very existence against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The justification this time around is more compelling than for our previous military interventions. But let's not forget a historical context that is defined by horrifying failures on the part of the U.S. military and the U.S. political elite, which should make us wary of the very real possibility of a slippery slope in Iraq.
The most important fact is that Kurdistan is a known quantity: a stable, relatively democratic place that has a good relationship with the U.S. The Kurdish militias, known as the Peshmerga, are widely viewed as competent and effective, despite having badly outdated equipment. Protecting a region that already has reasonably effective institutions, and could probably defend itself with some decent weapons, is a much different proposition than, say, dumping crates of weapons into the middle of an apocalyptic, half-understood civil war and crossing our fingers.
Secondly, northern Iraq is facing a genuine humanitarian crisis. ISIS really is a pack of bloodcurdling, murderous jihadists who would likely massacre the Yazidis given half a chance. True humanitarian aid — copping the U.N refugee agency a few billion dollars perhaps, or allowing the Kurds to sell the oil in the tanker we've impounded in Texas — ought to be uncontroversial.
However, it would be grossly irresponsible to end the analysis there. It should be noted that this entire situation is evidence of grotesque strategic failure on the part of the United States. The Kurds are being shot to pieces by top-of-the-range American military hardware, because our brain-dead colonialist exercise in Iraq collapsed completely. Our carefully trained and equipped Iraqi army units deserted en masse in the face of ISIS, which then cheerfully picked up millions of dollars' worth of free arms and ammunition.
That itself isn't an argument for not arming the Kurds (whom the U.S. was reluctant to arm over fears of undermining the unity of the Iraqi state, in yet another sick irony), but it does demonstrate the limits of handing out high-grade weapons hither and yon.
Then there is the political context within the United States. As Jeb Lund ably demonstrates, elite American political culture is permeated with dim-bulb warmongers who would invade half the nations on the globe if they could. On Sunday, Sen. John McCain was preemptively denouncing the current operation, licking his chops at the prospect of finally, maybe getting to invade somewhere, never mind where.
And while Obama does seem reluctant to launch a full-scale ground invasion (and laudably so), he chose Thomas "Suck. On. This." Friedman to conduct his recent wide-ranging interview on foreign policy.
Thus, as I've previously argued, perhaps the greatest danger with any ostensibly limited military operation is that it will be used by our hawkish foreign policy establishment to pressure the White House into more action.
Finally, the absurd nightmare in Iraq — in which merciless jihadists and our allies are blowing each other to smithereens with our weapons — should give us pause about the narrowness of our strategic vision. Fumble-fingered use of military force has been blowing up in our face fairly regularly for decades. Malaria kills more than 600,000 people every year; perhaps we should try redirecting a fraction of the hundreds of billions of dollars to be spent on the worthless F-35 toward mosquito nets or something? Just for novelty's sake?
At the least, a net seems less likely to inspire burning hatred in hearts of people who get one by mistake.