To hawkish right-wingers, but also to many militant liberals, the antidote to the problem of Isis is clear: the application of military power to defeat the jihadists and lay the foundation for a humane and stable political order, beginning in Iraq but eventually extending across the Islamic world.
There are several problems with this analysis. For starters, it glosses over the fact that military power in the form of the 2003 Anglo-American invasion created the opening for the jihadists in the first place. Where there had been stability, US and British forces sowed the seeds of anarchy. The so-called ‘Islamic State’ whose forces in recent weeks have spread havoc across Iraq represents the most recent manifestation of this phenomenon. In short, as far as violent Islamic radicalism was concerned, the putative American solution has exacerbated rather than reduced the problem.
When he ascended to the presidency, Barack Obama seemed to get that. Yet even as he fulfilled his promise to withdraw US forces from Iraq, his efforts to devise a policy toward the Islamic world based on something other than invasion and occupation came up short.
Obama’s failure stemmed from myriad causes, not least of them developments in the region that his administration did not anticipate and could not control. In Syria, Libya, Egypt, and now in Iraq itself, events and their consequences have time and again caught Washington by surprise.
So now Obama is back for another bite at the Iraqi apple. Twenty-three years after Operation Desert Storm laid the basis for George H.W. Bush’s ‘new world order’ and 11 years after George W. Bush went his father one better by capturing Baghdad itself — ‘Mission Accomplished’ — the Iraq war has resumed in the form of a small-scale but apparently open-ended air campaign.
Militarists take a certain satisfaction in the evident collapse of Obama’s efforts to end the Iraq war. If they have any complaint, it’s that the President was too slow to pull the trigger and ought to widen the US target array. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now positioning herself for a presidential run, is signalling her appetite for more vigorous action, for example against Syria’s Assad regime.
To what end? Apart from mounting resistance to the ‘Islamic State’ — a force of perhaps 10,000 fighters lacking either an air force or a navy yet said to threaten the world’s only superpower — what is America’s strategic objective? The answer is that there is none. For the US, military action has become a substitute for strategy, indeed, for acknowledging the fact that nearly a quarter-century of military involvement in Iraq and in the Middle East more generally has produced next to nothing of value. Only the naive, the obtuse or the dishonest will believe (or profess to believe) that trying harder has the slightest chance of producing a different and more favourable outcome.
The United States and its European allies do not possess the wit nor the will nor the might to fix whatever it is that ails much of the Islamic world. This is the principal lesson that the long Iraq war has to teach. The beginning of wisdom lies in recognising that fact.
So yes, to address the plight of innocent people at immediate risk, let us airdrop lifesaving bundles. If nothing else, doing so allows fatuous pundits like Richard Cohen of the Washington Post to preen about the United States doing ‘the right thing’, thereby ‘saving many lives and our honour as well’. But let us not confuse moral imperatives with the obligations and complexities inherent in national security policy.
No doubt the ‘Islamic State’ poses a danger of sorts. But for the United States and for Europe, that danger is negligible. Regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran are both more directly threatened and far better positioned to deal with it. Offering whatever indirect assistance might be helpful, the United States would be better served simply to butt out. We’ve done enough damage.
Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.