President Obama seems determined to do to his successor what George W. Bush did for him: Leave America involved in a war in Iraq without clear goals or a mission. In a planned address to the nation on Wednesday, Obama will make the case to the public for a military campaign that may take up to three years, according to news reports, though it doesn’t involve ground troops.
At first, striking the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria was a limited operation to save minority groups. Now it is a 36-month campaign that will outlive the Obama presidency, guaranteeing that at least five consecutive American presidents after Ronald Reagan will oversee acts of war in Iraq.
Some perspective: The Soviets spent 10 years in Afghanistan. Going back to the first Gulf War, America’s involvement in Iraq is stretching toward a quarter of a century. Will we ever learn that American troops, American bombs, and the push-pull of economic sanctions/aid cannot stitch together this country? Iraq is the product of bad imperial line drawing by the British. At this point its only shared history is dictatorship, interrupted by war with Iran or the United States.
Justifiably, Americans are disgusted and horrified at the rise of ISIS in the Sunni Triangle of Iraq and in eastern Syria. But Iraq isn’t just a haven for terror gangs like ISIS; it's a playground for the regional politics of the Middle East, a place where Iran, Syria, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia can field-test their ability to unleash havoc and jockey for power.
Unless America wants to really play the imperial heavy again and reappoint Paul Bremer as a kind of emergency viceroy who runs Iraq directly from his desk, our blood and treasure is going to be wasted in dribbles indefinitely. The wiser solution is to let ISIS be a problem that other regional powers invest their energies in solving.
The reason the president is making a three-year commitment to fighting ISIS is that we have no idea how our bombs will create the kind of political order capable of repelling a radical Sunni insurgency on the ground. More pertinently, we don't know whether they can capture Iraqi political energies into a constructive project. A three-year commitment is merely a hope that drones and bombs plus time equal a stability that is peaceful enough and liberal enough to make our quarter-century of involvement not look like a total waste. But it dumps all the responsibility for solving Iraq on the United States, and makes us yet again a convenient scapegoat for the whole region's failure.
The president understandably feels some ownership over the problem of ISIS. Even if he opposed the Iraq War, it still involved the honor of the nation he leads. And the state of Iraq will reflect on the strength and resolve of the United States.
But alliances in the Middle East quickly become entanglements. A year ago, Washington policymakers wanted to join in the rebel cause against Syria's Bashar al-Assad. Now they contemplate making peace with Assad in order to get the largest group of rebels off the board. We can’t even be sure the weapons we give to today’s good guys don’t end up in the hands of the monsters.
This is all part of a broader pattern of the U.S. making too many promises. We’ve promised Japan and the entirety of Southeast Asia to manage China’s rise peacefully. Even as our NATO allies halved their share of military spending since the end of the Cold War, we’ve extended a security guarantee that a Russian advance on Estonia will be treated no differently from a land invasion of the United States. It's a promise so risible it practically dares a Russian challenge.
In fighting ISIS and propping up Iraq, the president is promising to finally make good on America’s constant failure to manage a millennia of hatreds and radical schools of thought, the politics of about six regional powers, and centuries of imperial hubris.
This has proceeded far too long without any debate in Congress. By micromanaging the globe, by accepting every responsibility without real help from our allies, and by over-promising, we are inviting a disaster. It’s too much.