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Another General Wants Forever War in Iraq

CENTCOM's Kenneth McKenzie supports a very broad mission for America in the Middle East. Is it any wonder we haven't left?
General Kenneth McKenzie

The United States must maintain an aggressive posture toward Iran and prolong its military intervention in Iraq indefinitely, CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. argued in a livestreamed conversation with the Middle East Institute on Wednesday. This high-ranking support for demonstrably failed strategies—and the specious arguments McKenzie advanced to support them—are an ill omen for U.S. foreign policy. If McKenzie and those who share his thinking get their way, our government will continue to waste blood and treasure on reckless antagonism.

Nearly reciting from CENTCOM’s “priorities” brief, McKenzie described U.S.-Iran relations as in a state of “contested deterrence,” which “really obtained from the January exchange where we [killed Iranian General Qassem] Soleimani, and they attacked our forces at Erbil and also at Al Asad Airbase.” The Soleimani strike broke a cycle of escalation, he argued, because “the Iranians have had to recalculate…just what we’re willing to do.”

As he elaborated, however, McKenzie’s case unraveled.

He claimed the Soleimani assassination re-established deterrence, but he did so only by reversing the order of events. “In 2019,” he said, “we saw state-on-state attacks generated from Iran against Saudi Arabia—the Aramco attack—and then we saw a state-on-state attack against us in early January—you know, in Iraq, when they attacked the Al Asad Airbase—so I believe right now they are deterred from undertaking those activities, because they have seen that we have both the capability and the will to respond.”

It’s a compelling narrative until you notice the order of McKenzie’s telling (Aramco, Al Asad, Soleimani) is not the order in which the events occurred (Aramco, Soleimani, Al Asad).

How can the Soleimani hit be said to establish deterrence to prevent attacks like the Al Asad strike if the Al Asad strike took place after Soleimani was killed? (In fact, the strike was a direct response to Soleimani’s death, albeit one calculated to avoid plunging into outright war.) This reversal McKenzie uses is a clumsy abuse of chronology.

The better explanation for Iran’s decision to at least temporarily scale down its regional troublemaking in 2020 as compared to 2019 is threefold.

First, Iran is dealing with a severe COVID-19 outbreak that’s focusing some of Tehran’s attention at home. Second, the Iranian regime has reportedly decided to lie low in the Middle East until after the U.S. presidential election later this year.

Third—and most important—in January, we came to the brink of war with Iran, and Tehran’s primary goal is regime survival, which becomes impossible if the United States invades. In that sense, the sequence of events McKenzie mentioned helped push Iran to back down—but that sequence must be seen in the context McKenzie neglects to mention. For one thing, Washington also backed down in January. For another, all this took place against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and institution of the consistently counterproductive “maximum pressure” campaign, which has incentivized the very regional provocations McKenzie wants credit for stopping.

McKenzie’s treatment of Iraq is equally troubling. He introduced the possibility of ending our war there and bringing American soldiers home as a win for Iran, which ignores that such a move is the closest thing to victory available to the United States.

The general explained that, from his perspective, “we’re in Iraq to finish the defeat of [the Islamic State],” not only in the already-accomplished goal of unmaking the territorial caliphate but also in ending ISIS’s ability “to carry out attacks.” However, McKenzie also conceded that this is a Sisyphean task: the threat of ISIS “is not going to go away,” he said. “There’s never going to be a time, I believe, when either ISIS or whatever follows ISIS is going to be completely absent from the global stage.”

McKenzie’s plan, then, amounts to a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Ideally, he said, that would mainly be a supporting role backing local military—but if the past two decades have shown anything, it is that this sort of partial drawdown always leaves the door open to a new round of escalation. The war in Iraq was technically “over” when the fight against the Islamic State began, but eight years later it is meaningless to speak of this as anything but a continuous 17-year conflict. As long as U.S. troops remain in Iraq, this war will continue, and new cycles of large-scale fighting will be possible—perhaps even a full-on war with Iran.

Instead of juggling dates and attempting to justify perpetual war, the task at hand with Iran and Iraq alike is true de-escalation and a pivot to realist diplomacy. As McKenzie himself agrees, U.S. military might already deters significant Iranian aggression, and extremist groups like ISIS will never be eliminated (at least not by military means). Further military intervention will not make us safer or the Mideast more peaceful.

It is time to abandon the feckless, military-first foreign policy that has brought us so much grief for nearly 20 years.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, PoliticoUSA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.