Coffee House

Don’t listen to the hawks — the west should leave Iraq alone

13 August 2014

7:31 PM

13 August 2014

7:31 PM

This is a preview from this week’s Spectator, available tomorrow:

Peering down from the Olympian heights of the New York Times, the columnist David Brooks writes that “We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq.”  There, in the Land of the Two Rivers,  he continues, a succession of American presidents has confronted the “core problem” of our era:  “the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.”

To Brooks and other hawkish right wingers, but also to considerable number of militant liberals, the antidote to this problem 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, U. S. 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 U. S. 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. Events, dear boy, events,” as Harold MacMillan said. 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 eleven 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 U. S. target array.  Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, now positioning herself for a presidential run, is signaling her appetite for more vigorous action, for example, against Syria’s Assad regime.

Toward 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, of course, is that there is none.  For the United States, 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 naïve, the obtuse, or the dishonest will believe (or profess to believe) that trying harder has the slightest chance of producing a different and more favorable outcome.

The United States and its allies possess neither 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 recognizing 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 to preen about the United States doing “the right thing,” thereby “saving many lives and our honor 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 more than enough damage.

Andrew J. Bacevich is a professor of history and international relations at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies.

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Show comments
  • bob

    motherfucking exactly! Ahhh are we trying to start WW3? How can this possibly turn out well?

  • Kristiann Mann

    we should arm assad, the kurds and iran to the teeth. then watch the fighting unfold.. a desert hunger games

  • evad666

    However we need to recognize and eliminate the related threat raised here in the UK, Europe and Australia.

  • johnallen919

    There is no agreement on who the enemies are. What is the condition of victory?

    What will be the cost in blood and treasure? How long are we prepared to fight this war, an end to which does not today seem to be anywhere in sight? How reasonable is it to expect that the Kurdish peshmerga and an Iraqi Army that fled Kirkuk, Fallujah, and Mosul, will be able to recapture the Sunni regions of Iraq?

    Hillary Clinton thinks we should be tougher on Iran and that Obama blundered by not aiding the Syrian rebels when they first rose up to overthrow President Bashar Assad. Veteran diplomats Ryan Crocker, William Luers, and Thomas Pickering argue that Assad is not the real enemy. The Islamic State is, and we should consider a ceasefire between the Free Syrian Army and Assad.

    “It makes no sense for the West to support a war against Assad as well as a war against the Islamic State,” they write, “Assad is evil but … he is certainly the lesser evil.” Crocker-Luers-Pickering also argue that the crisis calls for the United States to accept the nuclear deal with Iran that was on the table in July and work with Tehran against ISIS. Iranians and Americans are already rushing weapons to the Kurds, who have sustained a string of defeats at the hands of the Islamic State. ”A new strategic relationship between the United States and Iran may seem impossible and risky,” the diplomats write, “yet it is also necessary and in the interests of both. While an alliance is out of the question, mutually informed parallel action is necessary.”

    If we could work with the monster Stalin to defeat Hitler, is colluding with the Ayatollah beyond the pale?

    Who exactly is our enemy? ISIS only, or Assad, Hezbollah and Iran as well? Will our involvement be restricted to air power—fighter-bombers, gunships, cruise missiles, drones? Or should the president be authorized to send U.S. ground troops to fight? If we are to be restricted to air power, is it to be confined to Iraq, or can it be used in Syria—and against Assad as well as ISIS?

    If U.S. combat troops cannot be used, what are the prospects of expelling ISIS from Iraq? And if we should drive them out, what is the probability they will come back as soon as we leave, especially if we have left them in control of northern Syria? Is annihilation of ISIS the only permanent solution? How long and bloody a war would that require?

    Will the president be authorized to coordinate war planning with Tehran? And if Assad is to become our de facto ally, should we end our support for the Free Syrian Army and negotiate an armistice and amnesty for the FSA?

  • CharlietheChump

    The Middle East problem is far too old and too complex to approach one problem, never mind one country, at a time. Actions have reactions.
    Who is up to this task?

  • CharlietheChump

    Ever tried to relieve a mountain and no-one was there (cf US Special Forces).

  • Advocatus_Diaboli_69

    Whatever your opinions about previous wars in Iraq this is a time when air superiority could be used to at least slow the advance of the IS fighters. Meanwhile, giving the Kurds time to rearm and reorganise and tipping the balance in their favour.

    Reading and hearing the descriptions about what the IS are doing to local people should be enough to convince you that turning away is not an option. Bombing the bastards who are beheading, butchering, enslaving, and raping anyone they please isn’t too much to ask, is it? Isolationism is just another word for turning a deaf ear to the screams.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      The Kurds have long been supplied. ISIS isn’t going to crack into their holdings, not by a longshot. Sadaam never did, and ISIS is no Sadaam.

  • oregun

    What a load of rubbish from beginning to end. The events in Iraq are what happens when you put in an administration that thinks Islam is great and needs to be everywhere. Obama has done more to promote this mess than any one individual.

    • John Gerard

      The allies stupidly signed up to a shia sharia law constitution. Right there was the grounds for an islamic war in iraq. That constitution is still in place. No sunni worth his salt is going to accept that. And that brings us to today.

      Across Iraq and Syria, we have somewhere from 200-230k dead so far. I estimate that by the time this is ‘over’ – in so far as it ever is where muslims are involved – we’ll be looking at around 2,500,000 dead, maybe more. That’ll take years. They’ll just chip away at the populations.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        It’s all part of the grand plan. The mullahs kept rattling the nuke scimitar, and so the NWO decided to give them a nice bloody war to fight, and pay for.

  • Cooper1992

    Well I agree with everything written. When it comes to Arab affairs I am unashamedly an isolationist.

    When one wants to intervene, one must be completely sure that the intervention is going to be positive and that there are defined goals (that a situation won’t escalate).

    I cannot see the United States, United Kingdom nor France; being able to offer those assurances. The peoples of the Arab nations on the whole despise the West and our culture and values. Weapons get thrown around, violence is dished out to all, dictatorial governments are ‘elected’, and in the case of New York 2001, Madrid 2005, and London 2006; occasionally the anger reaches home.

    Combine this strong belief with the situation we are currently in (especially since 2007) – stagnant economies, dwindling armed forces, immigration troubles, Russian trade embargoes, demographic shortfalls, lowering education standards, and most of all mounting debt levels – are we really in a position to enter into another decade-long conflict with Islamic terror stretching from Lebanon, into Syria, Gaza, Libya, Algeria, Nigeria, Iraq, and with Iran on the border?

    We don’t have the energy, power, or wealth needed anymore. The West is tired and we must go back to the drawing board if we are to prosper into the 21st century. I agree with China’s policy of isolationism, and I do think for the time being that the UK, the USA, and France; should all follow suit.

    • Advocatus_Diaboli_69

      So we leave them to it and the slaughter goes on. What happens when the IS fighters, emboldened by their success, wealthy, well armed, and experienced in urban warfare decide to spread their message into Europe and to encourage their supporters here to join them in battle?

      • Colonel Mustard

        It’s down to the government. A dual policy of reducing the armed forces capability and embarking on foreign intervention is not just incredible it is stupid. Cameron’s cabinet seems to want to save money at home whilst spending it abroad. You need a lot of money and a lot of capability for foreign adventure. Cameron doesn’t have it or refuses to allocate it but then still wants to respond to every emergency. The cost of the Libyan air missions in terms of £ and sustainability was eye-watering. It has got worse since then not better.

        The PR man and his cabinet are clowns, making it up as they go along and responding to focus group polling. It might work in selling detergent but it is no good for running a country.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        Where are they getting their wealth?

        You better ask and answer that question, before going too far .

        If it’s Turkey (NATO and soon EUSSR member) and Saudi Arabia (longtime Westminster arms customer), then it might be time to rethink matters, if those countries are supporting the murderous islamofascist ISIS group that you describe, and feel threatened by.

        • Advocatus_Diaboli_69

          It’s been widely reported that they’ve emptied several banks in the towns and cities they’ve taken, and they’ve started taxing the local population.

          • the viceroy’s gin

            Do you think they’ll be living large off the wealth of those desert residents, with little to no agriculture, no industry? And there’s no usury in muzzieland, remember. Banks are not quite what you think they are, there. They didn’t wind up with the Dutch gold reserves or something.

            Do you think they’ll be organizing a spread of islamofascism to Europe as you seem to fear, off those meager scraps? I don’t think so. But it’d be Europe’s own fault, if they let it happen.

            No, much like Osama bin Laden did, ISIS will take in cash off rich Saudis and sympathetic islamofascists, as that’s what’s got them where they’re at right now(along with the help the US, UK and France have given them in Syria).

            Again, that’s the question you should ask now, if the spread of islamofascism is your fear. That cash flow from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, UAE et al is your enemy, not these 5,000 thugs running around like a South Side Chicago street gang. Those idiots can’t even defeat the Assads, let alone anybody serious.

            Years ago, once the US bought off the local Sunnis there, they routed the transient islamofascists in the Sunni triangle, when the Sunnis sided with the US. It’s about cash flow. Always. You have to cut off the cash flow (or replace it in the US’ case). But first, you have to recognize where their existing cash flow is coming from.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    David Brooks is not a “hawkish right winger”. He is a social democrat and a true progressive, and in today’s parlance, a neoconservative, and a particularly rabid one.

  • Augustus

    “Obama’s failure stemmed from myriad causes…”

    Not least of which was his abject failure to fully understand the Iraq war. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars.” Remember? Ending the war in Iraq, and bringing American troops home was the cornerstone of candidate Obama’s platform in 2008. And as president he was adamant in his intention to keep that promise, come what may. But democracy rarely ever came quickly or easily. So, rather than leave sufficient troops that was necessary to give peace a chance, Obama decided to leave only what was necessary to secure the American embassy. Had Obama heeded the advice of military professionals the Iraqi people very well may have been able to keep the sparks of sectarian violence, and the incompetence and partisanship of the Maliki government from becoming a raging inferno of death. But unfortunately for the people of Iraq, and those in Syria, Lebanon and no doubt many more places, community organizer par excellence, Barack Obama, had far better things to do than ensure that the blood and efforts America had spent in Iraq over all those years was not in vain. He had another election to win.

    • the viceroy’s gin

      Bush scheduled the US pullout from Iraq, not Obama. Obama merely executed Bush’s plan. Not that Barry is competent in any way, but he didn’t do any thinking or acting on this. Bush blazed the trail, and Obama merely followed along, with no changes made.

      You can blame Field Marshals Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy for creating ISIS in Syria, which they did as adjunct to their excellent Libyan adventure. That’s the nexus of the current slaughter in Syria and Iraq .

      • John Gerard

        The whole thing was idiotic. Saddam was less than zero threat to us.

  • The Masked Marvel

    Called it. It’s all so predictable.

    It’s all Bush’s/Blair’s fault / Nowt to do with us / Intervention never works / The Joooos are pulling the strings

    Delete as applicable.

    • Kennybhoy

      You a neocon Maister M?

      • The Masked Marvel

        No. I had opinions before the term existed.

    • Cooper1992

      For goodness sake. The guy is an IR professor who knows what he is talking about and is putting forward an alternative view to the supposed ‘experts’ in the Telegraph, Times, Guardian etc.

      Put forward an opinion or just shut up you moron.

      • Emulous

        He says what I copy below.
        He is oh so wrong.
        The IS is a cesspit fermenting a terrorist cohort with brothers and sisters in Birmingham and who will come back and make 7/7 look like a picnic.

        “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 more than enough damage.

        • the viceroy’s gin

          Saudi Arabia and Turkey support ISIS. They created ISIS. If they were threatened by ISIS, then they wouldn’t have done all that.

          Iran may be threatened by ISIS, but they have a buffer in Baghdad to protect them.

      • The Masked Marvel

        I’ve put forward an opinion multiple times. If you can’t be bothered to keep up, that’s your own affair.

  • Makroon

    Obama has his problems, but Libya and (nearly) Syria were Franco-British follies and Iraq was all George Bush’s own work.

  • swatnan

    the man is a liar and tells fibs, just like oswald mosley did

    • swatnan

      Apologies wrong thread!!! Should have read: ‘Nigel Farage is a liar and tells fibs like Oswald Mosely did’.

      Back to Iraq. No thanks! A bit of Isolationism is called for, not Interventionism. Let the Arabs solve theiir own problems.

      • Inverted Meniscus

        Wish you had told your mate Tone that in 2003. Still, you socialist nutters are both hypocritical and stupid.

      • realfish

        Sadly it will soon be our problem.