Improving Iraq

Improving Iraq
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There is a certain naiveté inherent in believing dysfunctional foreign nations can be made viable simply through outside military intervention. This was obviously the great lesson of the second Bush administration and the war to remove Saddam Hussein: Iraq was a blood-soaked basket-case under Saddam, yet in hindsight it seems his dictatorship was as much a product of this unlovely status quo as its cause. America’s empathetic rhetoric of liberation proved too generous by half, presuming, as it did, that the violent, petty sectarianism that characterized Saddam’s regime lacked the popular support we’ve since learned it has.

Yet the aftermath of America’s 2003–2011 war has encouraged the rise of another sort of thoughtlessness — the sample-size-of-one generalization that since Iraq went poorly, US military interventions in foreign nations always “cause more problems than they solve,” and should be ipso facto avoided as a result. Such knee-jerkism has been in predictable abundance in the aftermath of President Obama’s decision to bomb select Iraqi targets in response to the growing power of the fundamentalist terror group ISIS.

Ron Paul released a tendentious editorial last week denouncing the Obama strikes as but the latest manifestation of a “failed interventionist policy” in Iraq, in which human suffering is “cynically manipulated by the Obama administration … to provide a reason for the president to attack Iraq again.” Rand the Younger, for his part, warned that opposing ISIS could bring America into closer alliance with decided undesirables. “Do you know who also hates ISIS and who is bombing them?” he asked rhetorically the other day, “Assad, the Syrian government.”

On the left, meanwhile, some Congressional Democrats have been equally eager to draw continuity between the eight-year Bush war and Obama’s potentially “open-ended” raids. Even’s put aside their usual dogmatic partisanship to issue a stern reprimand that Iraq’s current problems are not ones “that more U.S. bombings can solve.”

There are concerns to be raised about the Obama plan, to be sure. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, and Americans are right to be wary of the unforeseen consequences of ill-conceived military adventurism. Yet if this latest Middle East intervention is to be skeptically considered in any useful way, critiques should begin by confronting its terms of engagement as articulated by the president himself, as opposed to some totemic notion of what we might cynically expect them to be.

On August 7, President Obama defined his ambitions for military action against ISIS as fundamentally limited, and based around two narrow goals: safeguarding the thousands of American personnel still serving in various official capacities in the cities of Erbil and Baghdad, and protecting various Iraqi religious minorities hiding on Mt. Sinjar from “a potential act of genocide” at the hands of surrounding ISIS fighters.

To date, all bombing raids — nearly 100 now, or about 20 a day — have made good on this promise.

In the days immediately following the President’s August 7 announcement, hundreds of thousands of pounds of food and water were airdropped to Iraqis stranded on Sinjar, while bombing raids around the base of the mountain helped create a “humanitarian corridor” through once-hostile territory to expedite refugee migration. Thousands have been liberated, and though the United Nations says the mountain remains far from empty, America’s first mission has been declared more or less accomplished.

Mandate number two, the protection of American personal, has proven no less focused, even if the precise subject of that focus — providing air support to help Iraqi and Kurdish forces recapture control of the Mosul Dam from ISIS militants — was somewhat unanticipated. Though critics have cried mission creep, the interest in making protection of the dam the primary focus of American safety seems evident enough: destroying the Dam could flood Baghdad within hours, and presumably the safety of the countless US contractors, diplomats, and elite forces stationed there would not be well served by a “15-foot wall of water” crashing into their homes and offices.

Amid the backdrop of these missions, the President has repeated a consistent, self-aware refrain that no, this is not an open-ended war, yes, it is primarily the Iraqis’ responsibility to defend themselves, and yes, he is keenly aware of — and eager to avoid — the irony of being a president who ended one war in Iraq only to start another.

America’s current battle is not about regime change or nation-building, nor is it one that threatens to instigate the emergence of “something worse” by failing to appreciate the stability of the status quo. ISIS literally crucifies hereticsburies children alive, and decapitates journalists with rusty razors. They are quite objectively, as Charles Krauthammer put it, the “worst people on Earth,” yet the current US mission is simply trying to restrain the impact of their evil, rather than extinguish it altogether.  Considering how much responsibility Obama bears for the rise of ISIS to begin with — through his blindly political Iraqi troop withdrawal and refusal to back Syria’s moderate rebels when it could have made a difference — it seems the man has earned the benefit of the doubt when he says he’s not serious about using American might to solve big problems.

To dust off cliched complaints about American imperialism in this context is not only to lazily slur a military intervention that is at least trying to be the opposite of Bushism — restrained and humble— but to profess moral apprehension about even the clearest-cut applications of military force to defend American safety and prevent humanitarian disaster from villains of truly unimpeachable evil.

Such arguments bear little principle beyond ostrich-like isolationism — an ugly label, but sometimes the most accurate.


  1. Charles Anthony

    Follow the money.

    <<…critiques should begin by confronting its terms of engagement as articulated by the president himself, as opposed to some totemic notion of what we might cynically expect them to be.>> I disagree.
    I suggest saving your time and effort by going directly to the source: Who finances ISIS?

  2. Warhead77777

    Random princes in S Arabia.

  3. CapitalG17

    …Ah, but didn't you hear? "Iraq" and "Syria" aren't really nations at all, just arbitrary lines in the sand drawn up by those bad old Allied Powers after ganging up on the poor Ottoman Turks during the Great War.
    Of course, Palestine… Well, that's the sacred inviolable ancestral homeland of the Palestinian people of Palestine, that just happened to be openly and obviously built on top of the ruins of old Israel. Not that there ever was an Israel before. In fact, there's no "Israel" now. There's no Jordan, either. Also, no Kobe. There is a Serge Ibaka, however. Heh. "Sir Chewbacca".
    Anyway, let's just all sit back and let President Obama finish this fight that he started, caused, and previously helped prolong.

  4. Guest

    While not directly related can I posit a question – what is it that motivates someone born and raised in a western country to voluntarily take themselves off to fight in a desert that they have never lived in and possibly die fighting in a war?
    Answer that and we'll start to understand the rise of ISIS.

  5. Jake_Ackers

    Gangs. Same reason anyone joins a gang. Father figure asks them. Sense of belonging. Since of purpose.

  6. Simeon

    "refusal to back Syria’s moderate rebels"

    America has been backing Syria's moderate rebels all along. Here's a Reuters story from this January that mentions it. It was this aid to the Syrian rebels that allowed ISIS to grow; the groups that the U.S. was providing aid to, and that you are endorsing in this post, were, until late last year, allies of and regularly praised al-Nusrah and other Islamic rebels. It was members of these Islamic groups that would go on to form ISIS's power base in Syria.

    If the United States had stayed out of the conflict all along, Assad might have cleaned up this mess before it even began.

  7. Jake_Ackers

    On your last point. That is the problem though. We don't want Assad in power. Nor do the people. It was a chance to get rid of a genocidal person not a chance to get rid of a dictator.

  8. Jake_Ackers

    Bombing will not solve Iraq. But it will solve ISIS. Why? Because the people are willing to fight and already are. All they need is air support. We made a mess in Iraq, there is a genocide coming and it can spread and undo all our efforts.

    What Americans don't want is a ground war. Ground war is because the people are not with you and you have to put the top on the pot to stop it from boiling over. We are not in that situation. Iraq, specifically the Kurds are willing to fight. Even women are fighting.

  9. Monte

    I agree. Problem with just sending our own military in is that we are doing all the work and thus the people won't be ready to take over once we are gone. Saddam had spent decades using force to keep the hostile forces within his country at bay, and once he and his military was gone, those forces exploded and the locals were not prepared to deal with them like Saddam was and thus the US had to stick around to try and clean things up. By limiting our intervention to just air support all we are doing is giving the locals an edge; they still have to take up weapons, train and fight to protect their country. In the end the locals will grow strong enough to get rid of hostile groups like Isis all on their own… we just give them the edge they need to last long enough to grow stronger.

    I'd also say that the threat of Isis may be having a uniting effect on the locals. They are like the nazi's of the middle east; they are so volatile and hated that they are actually getting normally fractured forces to unite against them(Heck Ron paul brought up how they are Assad's enemy, but would he say working with the soviets to get rid of the Nazi's was a mistake?). After saddam was gone the shiite's were quick to consolidate power for themselves over the minorities, but ISIS has proven to be such a threat that they have started sharing the power with the minority Kurds and sunni's. Its all the more reason why to help them survive this, because if they do, their country might be stronger and healthier as a result… though it there will be those who will want to go back to the internal fighting once the mutual threat is gone.

  10. BitterReality

    That is nothing but wishful thinking.

  11. Virgil

    I believe the British term in the 1920's was "air control". Makes all the difference for whatever forces are on the ground.

    That politically incorrect point aside, ISIS has the potential to be a bigger threat than Assad in that they represent an extreme version of the majority religion in the region, while Assad seems to be committing genocide in no small part because he believes any slight concession to freedom will mean his death as an Alawite. Therefore he will remain ultimately weak….ISIS however has the potential to shut up the moderates and make it appear that the region is veering into a further extreme direction. Bluntly, we don't know how far this can go. Unfortunately we seem to have arrived at a position like Europe was in circa 1940. There are a whole lotta bad guys and the US is for better or worse not willing to take on everyone at once…so we're going to have to set a few priorities.

  12. billytheskink

    Nice use of Chris Tucker's hair from the 5th Element in panel 4.

  13. Dirk

    "Considering how much responsibility Obama bears for the rise of ISIS to begin with — through his blindly political Iraqi troop withdrawal and refusal to back Syria’s moderate rebels when it could have made a difference"

    Two things regarding this. 1) The US timetable for withdrawal was set within the Bush administration. Hindsight being 20/20 it might be great to say that Obama was responsible for the rise of ISIS especially if you find yourself on a different end of the political spectrum to him, but I don't remember anyone mentioning ISIS once in 2008 when the SOFA was signed by Bush. I don't remember anyone mentioning them again in 2011 when the withdrawal was being completed by Obama. As a matter of fact i don't remember anyone mentioning them before the Syrian conflict was a few months in. And 2) for Syria, what I do remember being discussed a lot at the time was that there was no moderate rebel force to publicly back. Charles Krauthammer was not saying then that out of all of the Syrian rebel groups that there was for the US to pick from, that ISIS were the "worst people on earth" There was no good choice to make in who the US should support. There is absolutely nothing to say that picking one Syrian rebel group over another may not have ended up with similar results. This statement in your article is more than a little revisionist.

    I do agree with majority of your article, but I have seen similair statements made by a plethora of right wing pundits specifically putting the blame and responsibility of the rise of a militant power in the Middle East at Obama's doorstep. In republican circles outwith the realm of punditry I've heard people voice the opinion that that somehow makes him directly culpable for the gross atrocities being committed by ISIS. Most of them are using the knowledge of today against the viewpoint of years prior to make their case. Obama being political or not, the US had an agreement with Iraq to withdraw by 2011 that was put into place by the prior administration. Overstaying that would not likely have been good for relations with the Iraqi government or people regardless of public opinion in the US. And if there was one moderate group of Syrian rebels that presented the perfect opportunity to prevent the rise of ISIS and combat the Assad regime "when it could have made a difference", why did no other western nation publicly declare their support for that group? Because that moderate group did not exist.

  14. Guest

    Indeed: JJ did a whole cartoon about it… – rightly concerned about the rebels goals but at the time the only hint at the possibility that some rebels might be better worth arming than others was (reportedly) from the Italy government and the linked article noted that the EU consensus was there's no practical way of enforcing that wish.

  15. BitterReality

    "prevent humanitarian disaster from villains of truly unimpeachable evil."

    Or maybe you just have to come to term with evil. Because evil will always exist, no matter how we think that will change.

  16. Dom Patrick Balstero

    I guess the guise of religion and its pursuits to institute its way of life have its faults when the lines become crossed and something has to be done,which is evident. The republican party has profusely tried in-vainly to achieve international stability with a country such as Syria that operates under its own premises. Bombing seems the proper course of action outlined to handle ISIS but a more costly and precise ground war may be necessary.Its also terrible that the headlines are reporting these horrendous acts of brutality against journalism here in the news. Acts of traitorous intent usually have no good means and should be shunned and not be condoned by the sects of religion in which those individuals venture from. We can only hope there is a favorable outcome to all war,especially the situation we are currently in.

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