Much of the criticism levied against the Iraq War of 2003 may just as easily, and in some cases appropriately, be levied against the current announced campaign against ISIS?
First, there is value in a coalition particularly when here, unlike 2003, we have announced an intention not to use ground troops. Who will do the ground fighting? The Mehdi Army? And how do we make sure we are not misled into becoming an accomplice to counter-atrocities by equally fanatical factions whose goal is simply the mirror image of iSIS’s, i.e., to make the world safe for Shia Islam and to destroy all who stand in its path?
Second, do we have a post-war plan. We did not have a very good one in Iraq. In Libya, for which Obama amazingly gets a pass, we did not as well, and that state has turned into an anarchic disaster even though Khadafi, unlike Saddam Hussin, was cooperating with the West and other global institutions right up until the moment we decided to bomb him. What is our plan to “win the peace” in the broad swath of territory including Eastern Syria and Western Iraq? And, besides degrading ISIS, which is undoubtedly a good thing, what do we hope to put in its place? I would say a more liberal and multiethnic Iraqi government and the Assad regime–not the Free Syrian Army terrorists–is the answer, but the former does not exist and we are also talking about maintaining our conflict with the latter. We have, it seems, not even an explanation of what end state we’re seeking, let alone some coherent vision of how we will get there.
Finally, in Iraq, America’s presence during the occupation to some extent unified disparate, otherwise hostile-to-one-another groups, such as Shia and Sunni militants. Even ordinary Iraqis were understandably upset and sometimes hostile to America’s military presence, not least because language and cultural barriers undoubtedly created a great deal of friction that would not prevail in the case of a true, national, or even Arab, army conducting the same task. Iraqis were unified against us by the deep appeal of nationalist anti-imperialism and Islamic chauvinism, which counsels unity and outrage in the face of Western interlopers. We see a similar unity against Israel, which is hated by Sunnis and Shias alike, across the Arab world. How do we avoid this problem as our bombs begin to drop and will undoubtedly hit schools, civilians, rivals to whom our bombs are directed by malevolent Iraqis with parochial scores to sell, and the like? There seems no solution to this dimension, although a significant admixture of Sunni help from Jordan and Saudi Arabia would help. None appears forthcoming or reliable at the moment.
War is a serious thing, and it takes a lot of thinking not just for the first step, but the third, fourth, and final steps. Obama inspires no confidence in this area, having neglected (indeed, ignored, and to some extent fomented, this ISIS problem), and now reacting emotionally to the murder of Westerners, which seems simply an unavoidable hazard of being a Westerner in the Middle East and not, by itself, a sufficient cause of war. I think there are good reasons to strike millenarian Islamic terrorists whenever and wherever they coalesce, but there are also times to “wait and see,” particularly when they’re fighting our other enemies and rivals in the area, such as Iran and the sectarian government of Nouri al Maliki. Most important, nothing said or shown to date suggests that the very recent history lessons from Iraq and Libya have been internalized by Obama’s self-satisfied and amateurish foreign policy team. Even if the cause is just, the proposed plan seems deficient in its ultimate concept.