Barack Obama has adopted Bill Clinton’s policy toward Iraq: bomb it until it gets better. Clinton—and before him, George H.W. Bush—bombed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to safeguard the Kurdish north, degrade Saddam’s military capabilities, and perhaps weaken his regime to the point of collapse. Twenty years later, Obama is bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, while protecting the Kurdish north and what remains of the Iraqi state until recently ruled by Nouri al-Maliki.
We are well into the third decade of U.S. military operations against Iraq—dating back to 1991—but a free, stable, non-sectarian state has yet to emerge. Maybe a few more bombing sorties will do the trick.
George W. Bush got one thing right: he recognized that what his father and Bill Clinton had been doing in Iraq wasn’t working. Rather than continue indefinitely with airstrikes and sanctions that would never tame or remove Saddam, Bush II simply invaded the country and set up a new government. In the abstract, that was a solution: the problem was the regime, so change it. But change it into what?
Iraq is a patchwork of tribes and blocs of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. A dictator like Saddam could keep order, but since the end of the Cold War America has found dictators distasteful, so Iraq would have to be democratic—which means, no matter how intricate the electoral system might be, one faction would dominate the others. So Iraq plunged into years of sectarian violence, and when it was over, the Shi’ite Maliki was in charge. Sunnis were never entirely happy about this, and they only became less so over time. Once ISIS surged across the border from neighboring Syria—experiencing its own (almost) post-dictatorial disintegration—many Sunnis welcomed them, and the bloodshed resumed.
Obama doesn’t want to answer the question that Bush I and Bill Clinton also avoided: namely, what kind of government could Iraq possibly have after Saddam that would satisfy the United States? Bush II had an answer, and it proved to be the wrong one. Obama knows it’s a trick question. There is no realistic outcome in Iraq that will not involve violence and repression. Either the country must have another dictator (unacceptable), or it must be dominated by one sect or the other (in which case it risks becoming the Islamic State or another Iran—also unacceptable), or else we have to pretend that it’s about to turn into an Arab Switzerland (entirely acceptable, and also impossible).
ISIS is an exceptionally violent revolutionary group, but it’s only a symptom of the more fundamental disease: the lack of a government strong enough to keep order but not so sectarian or tyrannical in temper as to persecute anyone. If Obama is successful against ISIS—as George W. Bush was successful against Saddam—how long before a new evil congeals? ISIS itself is a successor to another terrorist group, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, that was beaten once before in Iraq. The rise of yet another terrorist or tyrannical force is a virtual given, a fact established by more than one cycle of history: as surely as AQIM followed Saddam and ISIS followed AQIM, something else awaits to follow ISIS.
Unable to break this cycle, Obama resorts to bombing because our pundits demand that he “do something.” Leaving Iraq to its own devices, to suffer, burn, and ultimately rebuild, is too cruel, and ISIS with its spectacular propaganda videos makes a great cable news bite and social-media campaign. It’s evil, it’s scary, it’s on YouTube, so what are we going to do about it? Obama would be weak and callous if he did nothing. That he can’t actually do much that matters in the long run is unimportant—our humanitarian urges and Islamophobic fears will be satisfied as long as we get some kind of action right now. So we bomb.
There’s no political risk in bombing, as there is in putting “boots on the ground.” There won’t be too many body bags shipped home to Dover AFB to trouble voters. What’s more, bombing can be of any intensity political conditions demand: if John McCain is howling louder than usual on “Meet the Press,” just drop a few more bombs. That shows you’re a real leader.
This may sound grotesque—not the reality of what Obama is doing and the politics that lead him to do it, but to my saying it out loud, when there are real human beings in Syria and Iraq for whom none of this is abstract. ISIS is a deadlier threat to their lives than American bombing is, and real men and women can make choices about violence and politics that anyone’s fulfill anyone’s grim projections. There may be no ideal “moderate resistance” to Assad or ISIS itself, but there many degrees of better and worse, and they are matters of life and death to the people of the region.
All of which is true, and opponents of our 23-year policy toward Iraq, such as myself, should not be complacent about far-away people’s lives. If this is something that war critics must keep in mind, however, supporters must be equally serious about political realities—not immutable realities, but probabilities so strong as to require that our hopes and ambitions take account of them. Peace and tolerance depend on order, and under these circumstances order depends on a strong state. It would be foolish for Obama or anyone else to name in advance what kind of state, under whose control, will emerge victorious, but whenever the Iraqis and Syrians themselves give rise to a leader or faction capable of maintaining order, America must be prepared to accept the result and demand only the most basic concessions to our own values and security.
During the Cold War, it was often enough that a state or faction be anti-Communist for it receive American approbation. Dictators and sectarians as well as democrats passed the test, sometimes to our regret. After 1989, with our own security unassailable, we raised our expectations of others: we could afford to moralize and cajole. This proved to be disastrous in many cases, as botched attempts at democratization and economic liberalization urged on by the U.S. led to unstable regimes and countervailing extremism. If the U.S. no longer wishes to apply as crude a test for regime acceptability as it did during the Cold War, it must nonetheless devise criteria more realistic than those that prevailed over the past 20 years.
Obama’s bombs and other measures may or may not lead to regime change in the territory now controlled by ISIS. He can’t control that, and he cannot even do much, given the way our media and politics work. But what he can do is begin the long process of clarifying America’s understanding of how much like or unlike us we really expect other regimes to be. If U.S. can arrive at non-utopian answer to that question, we can perhaps again have a strategy that matches means to ends—rather than one that falls back on air power as the ever-present means to impossible ends.