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Questions to Ask Before Bombing Iraq

The United States has become addicted to the application of lethal military power. A great many in our country have become convinced that dispatching the U.S. Armed Forces—or the threat thereof—to solve almost every international problem has kept us safe over the decades, and is the only thing that will ensure our security into the future. Yet evidence is piling up that the continuous and expanding use of American killing power is having a deteriorating effect on our national security and a destabilizing effect globally. Far from making us more secure and the world safer, our perpetual use of the military frequently fosters instability. The current situation in Iraq demonstrates this dangerous proclivity.

In recent weeks the government of Iraq has been losing first battles, then entire cities to a rising militant Islamic group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Many in the United States are calling on President Barack Obama to immediately order airstrikes. A certain segment of those demanding immediate action pin the blame for the deteriorating situation on the White House for withdrawing American forces from Iraq in 2011, and they want to rectify the situation by reapplying military force now. Yet there appears to be no consideration among the various advocates of lethal strikes for what comes next. The failure to examine the “what next?” question has become an increasingly common feature of U.S. strategic thought.

The George W. Bush administration was roundly criticized [1] for invading Iraq in March 2003 without an adequate plan for managing the country after the regime fell. The Obama administration has likewise been accused by many of having no plan for what came next [2] following the 2011 airstrikes in Libya. The current hysteria in Washington over ISIS gains seem to have ignored these acknowledged errors of the past. While there is an eagerness to once again unsheathe the American sword, there has been virtually no discussion of the tactical and strategic utility of such actions, nor consideration of the potential consequences.

For eight years, the U.S. and NATO fought an insurgent war in which almost 4,500 Americans [3] lost their lives, and over 32,000 were wounded [4]. Conservative estimates suggest that approximately 133,000 Iraqi citizens were killed [5] from 2003-2011, and at least 3.5 million human beings were displaced from their homes [6]. As unpleasant as life was for the average Iraqi citizen before our invasion, it cannot compare to the misery under which they’ve suffered since. A similar dynamic continues to play out in Afghanistan. Libya has suffered in a state of near anarchy since our 2011 air campaign. Pakistan, Yemen, and now a growing part of Africa have all seen a continual deterioration in their security corresponding to a rise in the application of U.S. military force and firepower.

Before adding yet another combat mission to the American logs in Iraq, we must ask a number of critical questions. Tactically, will airstrikes against the ISIS prove decisive militarily, or will they exacerbate the violence? Since ISIS personnel have the ability to blend in and out of the civil population, how will our jets or drones identify the “bad” civilians from the “good” civilians? Who will act as ground controllers to ensure bombers strike only valid military targets? What will be the American culpability if U.S. bombs kill civilians, or if air planners are given false intelligence that results in political opponents of the regime being killed? Will the attacks cause the population to reject the rebels—or to support them even more strongly?

Politically, will a new round of promises of political inclusion from the Iraqi Prime Minister hold if American planes and drones succeed in killing enough of his opponents? What if it is discovered that the current government of Iraq was culpable in bringing about the conditions that spawned this uprising? Might then American military power have been used, free of charge, by a corrupt government to eradicate its enemies, allowing it to continue in abusive power? These are critical questions that have to be answered before launching any military operation. Yet almost none of these questions appear to have been considered—much less answered—by those people most enthusiastically advocating strikes.

At some point we must be willing to recognize the stark truth that this excessive use of lethal military power has worsened our national security.

I am a strong advocate of having a powerful military that can crush opponents when our life, liberty, or vital interests are at risk. But we must abandon the “bomb first, think later” mindset and instead invest in solutions that seek to first understand, then address the underlying causes of violence and instability. This type of international engagement is harder and takes longer than ordering up airstrikes. Yet it offers the potential to reduce the danger to America, diminish the conditions in which rebellions and violence often breed, and help citizens of other countries achieve stability. It is in this way that our vital interests can best be safeguarded. Fail to learn these lessons, however, and our own national security will continue to deteriorate.

The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.

Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. He has been deployed into combat zones four times, winning the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm.

19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Questions to Ask Before Bombing Iraq"

#1 Comment By The Dean On June 19, 2014 @ 9:43 am

What the hell is bombing Iraq going to accomplish? These middle eastern countries’ boundries were drawn up after World War One by the British and French with little regard for the various ethnic groups and are artificial. We should cut our losses, stay out of this quagmire and work with, not bomb, the countries involved. We have lost enough brave men.

#2 Comment By John On June 19, 2014 @ 9:58 am

Yet almost none of these questions appear to have been considered—much less answered—by those people most enthusiastically advocating strikes.

Asking if the tool fits the job at hand? That way lies madness.

#3 Comment By Charles R. Williams On June 19, 2014 @ 10:44 am

The current situation in Iraq is a direct result of Obama’s failure to negotiate an agreement that would keep an American presence in Iraq as long as it was needed. Having precipitated this catastrophe, there is no sensible military option for Iraq. We should sit on the sidelines and let the chips fall where they will. Terrible thing will happen as a result.

The larger problem is not a tendency to employ military force, it is the false premises that underlie our use of military force.

The first is the nation-building fantasy. The latest version of this is our enthusiasm for the Arab Spring phenomenon.

The second is the misidentification of the enemy in the “war on terror.” The enemy is not some particular organization located in some particular country. The enemy is those Muslims who want to impose sharia on the world by violence. So while killing Osama bin Laden feels good, it really accomplishes very little. Winning in Afghanistan will do nothing about Yemen or Somalia or Mali or Boko Haram or ISIS. Getting bogged down there makes us reluctant to use military force when the opportunity arises.

#4 Comment By ferdigrofe On June 19, 2014 @ 3:16 pm

I found a free copy of George Kennan’s 1960 book on the relations between Lenin and Stalin and the West. His comments in it are timeless and insightful. If only the NeoCons had read and understand his wisdom, our country would be in much better shape.

#5 Comment By Clint On June 19, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

Stop attempting to play global cop in a bad neighborhood,where these Muslim factions embrace their violent culture.

#6 Comment By Louis On June 19, 2014 @ 4:16 pm

The Chinese have some interesting applicable sayings.
-When you have lost the backing of the people then you have lost the war even before the war has started.

or something to that effect.

The neocons and neoliberals think that they can control the future through military means and the truth is that they cannot.

Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and others before lost their wars because they lost their people and will of the people was so contrary to the reality that military force would not change people’s minds.

I thin kthis is another case where I dont think US force is going to change central asia or the middle east no matter how much Israel or the US wants.

#7 Comment By James Canning On June 19, 2014 @ 4:47 pm

I think a key part of the neocon conspiracy to set up the idiotic US invasion of Iraq, was not to have a good plan for what to do after Saddam H was overthrown. Duping GW Bush meant arguing the deal was a “piece of cake”.

#8 Comment By Rambler88 On June 20, 2014 @ 1:18 am

When Obama spoke the other day about of “targeted” airstrikes, I thought of the bombing of Serbia, and particularly the hit on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

#9 Comment By Patrick On June 20, 2014 @ 1:07 pm

Al-qaeda has explicitly stated that one of their tactics against the US is to draw us into these long, expensive conflicts as a form of economic warfare. Why do we keep playing into their hands?

#10 Comment By James W On June 23, 2014 @ 7:46 am

Heinlein wrote, “Anyone who clings to the historically untrue and thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never settles anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. Anyone who clings to the historically untrue and thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never settles anything I would advise to conjure up the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it.”

That being said, this debacle in Iraq is looking to more and more to be a textbook example of Batiat’s Broken Window Parable. The U.S. is broke and incapable of sustaining another prolonged conflict in Iraq without incurring additional debt, and everyone will suffer for it, just like we all suffered during the first phase of this nightmare.

My advise to Washington would be to get out. Get out now, while you still can.

#11 Comment By Francis On June 23, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

Obama’s mistake was that he did not immediately disengage the USA from Bush’s disaster. Any US military action will be viewed by Sunni extremists as the USA taking sides with the Shiites and will deepen anger against the US.

I am appalled that some conservatives, historically weary of “foreign wars” are so willing to see the USA engaged in a battle that it cannot win, regardless of whether the USA can afford such a conflict.

“Anyone who clings to the historically untrue and thoroughly immoral doctrine that violence never settles anything…”

I find this a very curious statement. Nonviolence is now immoral? If conservative such as Bush, Cheney, McCain and the lot had the same concern for the lives of the born as they do for the unborn, the conflict would have been avoided.

Costing the lives of 100,000 innocent Iraqis without due cause is immoral.

Killing any more Iraqis on the threat of possible terrorist action against the USA is even more immoral.

#12 Comment By SoberMoney On June 24, 2014 @ 12:51 am

The only question to ask is whether killing more Iraqi women and children is worth keeping more dirty energy profits flowing to the western OILigarchs.

#13 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 8, 2014 @ 12:25 am

Fast-forward seven weeks to August 8th and witness a sudden, concerted media blitz re the fall of two more northern Iraq towns to ISIS.

The Obama administration orders the U.S. Air Force to bomb Iraq.

But Lt. Col. Davis’ central questions remain unanswered:

[1] “Tactically, will airstrikes against the ISIS prove decisive militarily, or will they exacerbate the violence?”

[2] “Since ISIS personnel have the ability to blend in and out of the civil population, how will our jets or drones identify the ‘bad’ civilians from the ‘good’ civilians?”

[3] “Who will act as ground controllers to ensure bombers strike only valid military targets?”

[4] “What will be the American culpability if U.S. bombs kill civilians, or if air planners are given false intelligence that results in political opponents of the regime being killed?”

[5] “Will the attacks cause the population to reject the rebels—or to support them even more strongly?”

Given that the U.S. midterm elections are in 3 months, might these U.S. air strikes reflect the political need to be seen to “do something”? To “do anything” — no matter how poorly thought out and how blindly entered into?

#14 Comment By Kurt Gayle On August 8, 2014 @ 8:43 am

Non-interventionism: Rod-Dreher-Style?

“I have felt pretty strongly that the US should stay out of this fight, but this is about to turn into a genocide. Air strikes, heavily arming the Kurds, and humanitarian aid drops seem justified to me at this point.” (Rod Dreher, August 7, “Dear Israel: Please Attack The Christians & Yazidis”)

“My initial response to the President’s announcement tonight is that he’s done the right thing… I’m pretty strongly noninterventionist, but that is not an absolute position, especially not when we can fairly be blamed for setting off this crisis” (Rod Dreher, August 8, “ISIS Needs Killin’”)

Back on June 19th, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis wrote “Questions to Ask Before Bombing Iraq — Advocates of immediate airstrikes still haven’t learned the past decade’s most basic lessons.”

Col. Davis asked these five questions:

[1]” Tactically, will airstrikes against the ISIS prove decisive militarily, or will they exacerbate the violence?”

[2] “Since ISIS personnel have the ability to blend in and out of the civil population, how will our jets or drones identify the ‘bad’ civilians from the ‘good’ civilians?”

[3] “Who will act as ground controllers to ensure bombers strike only valid military targets?”

[4] “What will be the American culpability if U.S. bombs kill civilians, or if air planners are given false intelligence that results in political opponents of the regime being killed?”

[5] “Will the attacks cause the population to reject the rebels—or to support them even more strongly?”

To date none of these five questions have been answered.

It’s not too late, Brother Dreher, to re-think your position in terms of Col. Davis’ five questions and to re-adopt your “pretty strongly noninterventionist” stance re the U.S. renewing its bombing of Iraq.

#15 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 8, 2014 @ 12:56 pm

I am not an advocate for nonintervention by default. There are times when the US should intervene.

Whether or not this is one of them is questionable. The congealing of two opposing groups has however, squeezed through the pipeline. Conservative Christians fearing the Muslim menace and their liberal and conservative interventionists defaulters who think this is a good cause to prevent the roll back of their unnecessary invasion in the first place and the unwise choice to disengage, whether that disengagement was pulling into the green zone avoiding casualties to appease a disgruntled public or complete withdrawal for the same purpose — these groups now have a influential opportunity.

So while I have my doubts about any Christ like mandate having transformed Christ from a social worker interventionist on our southern to a battle field warrior for the cause against ISIS – again is barely, if at all supportable by scripture, but that seems to be the new old refrain. It’s not new, but it is timely.

Domestically, it means a new batch of refugees to avoid having to deal with the unruly blacks, seemingly unsatisfied with merely the election of a ‘sorta’ kind black white guy, whose primary objectives seems to have been disenfranchising religious conservatives by a whole sale overhaul of what “freedom of religion” and “association” in the Constitution means by wedging one of the most objectionable secular advances in modern US times demanding that they of not only accept homosexuality and same sex marriage, but that they embrace it as well.

None of which serves the interests of the US in my view. I have to laugh at the fear mongering that Iraq will be a bastion for new attacks like 9/11 as pure speculation as now based on that analysis the entire ME may be in the same boat soon. It seems more likely that ISIS is responding the liberals complaint about the use of power — ‘self determination.’ The right to decide minus super power involvement manipulating the question. Unlike Vietnam in which there were two established nation states in which one was attempting force their will on the other — this is clearly a civil war and as such an internal dispute.

Which of course means bloodshed, and ripping of flesh and loving fathers who two days before sat laughing with their children and in loving embrace with their wives will be shell shocked as flesh is torn from bone. Loving husbands will be wailing in pain sorrow and regret at love yet unexpressed as their lifeblood runs from them. That is a good reason why a fight is the last choice in political resolutions, but it is not uncommon nor should we be of so pretense of surprise — it is the nature of war.

The only possible motive to reengage militarily is to quell the violence — because it exists largely to our missteps and as such integrity may be calling.

But in so doing — we are no position to choose sides.

#16 Comment By Richard Wagner On August 8, 2014 @ 6:04 pm

If we had the luxury of being able to answer the questions, I’d agree. But ISIS is moving fast. I know that all our meddling largely resulted in ISIS in the first place, but there’s nothing we can do about that now. All we can do is try to clean up the mess the neocons have made over there. Airstrikes will do some damage without getting us too tangled up in that quagmire. It did work in Libya (for the record, I opposed that invasion on constitutional grounds). But it did work in Libya, and it will, at the very least, weaken ISIS. The people of Iraq know why we’re doing it, and if they have any sense, they’ll stand up to ISIS before it’s too late for all of them. It’s going to be ugly no matter what, and many innocents will die. Better ISIS die along with them.

#17 Comment By AGD On August 9, 2014 @ 8:05 am

There is a significant distinction between preemptive war against a nation-state and military intervention to save tens of thousands of people in immediate danger from non-state and quasi-state actors.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On August 10, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

“did work in Libya (for the record, I opposed that invasion on constitutional grounds). But it did work in Libya, and it will, at the very least, weaken ISIS. The people of Iraq know why we’re doing it, and if they have any sense, they’ll stand up to ISIS before it’s too late for all of them.”

I am not sure you have been attending to the news coming out of Libya, lately.

#19 Comment By jk On August 11, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

There is stupid bias to action in politics and bureaucrats in general. Doing something is better than nothing. Kind of like the hamster on the spinning wheel.

What these bureaucrats and chicken hawks do not realize is that choosing not to act is also a decision.

They also forget about the law of unintended consequences. Interjecting more things, more “solutions” in an unstable system will only lead to more unintended consequences, further escalation.