The United States is intervening yet again in Iraq. President Obama vows that with the latest airstrikes we will not get “dragged into fighting another war,” while also calling this a “long-term project” for which he is unwilling to set “a particular timetable.”
This time, the casus belli is more plausible. Even if there weren’t weapons of mass destruction a decade ago, there are tens of thousands of people trapped on Mount Sinjar. The U.S. bears more responsibility for the current humanitarian crisis than for Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical misrule. ISIS could eventually morph into something capable of threatening American interests.
But will the outcome be any better this time around? Obama may care less about a “fire in the minds of men” than a few starving women and children escaping murderers atop a mountain, but missions tend to creep. Once reengaged, there is no guarantee we will be greeted as liberators.
Now is not the time to re-litigate the war in Iraq, supporters of the 2003 invasion incant as if by rote. On the contrary: only by understanding what went wrong then, and how that war unleashed the very evils we are witnessing now, can we hope to accomplish anything there in the future.
These lessons are not limited to Iraq. Obama launched airstrikes in Libya with the stated purpose of preventing a massacre of civilians. Although he also sought to overthrow the existing regime, he denied that he was engaged in a war.
Obama’s euphemism “kinetic military action” was widely mocked and his refusal to go to Congress roundly condemned, but the absence of boots on the ground caused the American people to avert their gaze—until the tragedy of Benghazi.
Benghazi is far from the only bad thing to happen in Libya since the “successful” military intervention, however. News stories about the country read very much like those describing Iraq, replete with power outages, water shortages, and armed jihadists engaged in violence.
“The country is coming undone,” the New York Times reported in July. “Relentless factional fighting in Tripoli and in the eastern city of Benghazi has left dozens of people dead. Well-known political activists have been killed, diplomats have been kidnapped, and ordinary citizens fear bandits on the roads.”
“Libya today plays host to members and associates of several [al Qaeda-allied] groups, in some ways becoming a jihadist melting pot,” an unnamed counterterrorism official told The Daily Beast in May. “These groups haven’t united under the same banner, but the ad hoc links and intermittent cooperation among them are worrisome, especially as some of these groups have made no secret of their desire to conduct attacks beyond Libya’s borders.”
In an interview with the columnist Thomas Friedman, Obama allowed that intervening “without sufficient follow-up on the ground to manage Libya’s transition to more democratic politics is probably his biggest foreign policy regret.” This resembles the right’s rapidly congealing conventional wisdom on Iraq: U.S. troops departed too quickly and the country flew apart.
Nonsense. It was the military interventions themselves, aimed at undeniably bad men but undertaken without any thought as to what would happen next, that created the power vacuums now being filled with even worst extremists. Instead of pro-Western liberal democrats, these wars have empowered ever more barbaric Islamists—precisely the kinds of people Americans assumed we were going to war to stop.
Iraq, with jihadists accessing dangerous weapons and talk of caliphates, now more closely resembles the terrorist safe haven war supporters warned about than before we invaded in the first place. Libya sounds more like pre-9/11 Afghanistan than it did before kinetic military action.
Yet the only solution bandied about in Washington is more military involvement to contain these forces and referee foreign civil wars. The alternatives are the drive-by humanitarian strikes favored by the Obama administration and the long-term deployment of troops preferred by his more hawkish critics.
Missing from this discussion is any recognition of past failure that goes beyond partisan point-scoring. There is little evidence our leaders know what they are doing in the Middle East, or at least know enough to promote political outcomes that won’t backfire later on.
Does the United States support Kurdish independence or continuing the unitary state of Iraq? Are we willing to crush ISIS regardless of what that means for Iranian influence in Iraq or Bashar Assad’s continued hold on power in Syria? How is success defined even in these limited strikes?
These are the questions that must ultimately be answered. Recognizing how counterproductive our recent foreign policy has been because of our failure to think through these kinds of questions is likely a prerequisite to getting the right answers now.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?