It’s 2003 Again

by Jonah Shepp

What else can one possibly take away from this Noah Rothman exegesis of Peggy Noonan’s and Charles Krauthammer’s cases for expanding the new Iraq war to Syria? Here’s the crux of the argument:

The mission Krauthammer describes does not appear to require a significant American ground force, though it would be one which would only be effective in Iraq. The Islamic State’s stronghold in Syria will require an entirely different strategy, one far more robust and which may require putting American service personnel in harm’s way. But rolling back the Islamic State in Iraq is an acceptable short-term goal, and the American people should be informed that this is the mission in which their military is presently engaged. Those opposed to going to war to rid the world of ISIS worry that achieving that objective will require more commitment than most are willing to admit. And it is possible that the American national interests at stake in this region, while appreciable, are not threatened to the degree that would merit a return of tens of thousands of American troops to Iraq. At least, not yet.

These are worthwhile debates to have, and Americans need to have an honest discussion about this threat. It is a discussion that must be led by their president. It seems, however, that some conservatives are beginning to observe that those who object to a military solution to the Islamic State threat rest their argument on the claim that it heralds a new occupation of Iraq. This is a straw man argument. The vast majority of Americans of every political stripe do not want to reoccupy that country, and this is not on the table. Destroying ISIS, however, is.

Right, because we all remember what happened the last time right-wing hawks sold the American public on a war that they alleged would have no long-term consequences. After the past decade, I suppose I shouldn’t be all that surprised that the cheerleaders for this new war are demanding that their opponents make a probative case against intervention, while the neo-neocons’ contention that a light-touch war with no “significant” ground force is presented as obviously true. (By the by, how many soldiers constitute “significant”? 1,000? 10,000? 100,000? No one wants to say…) For more of the same, see Elliott Abrams here. Brian Fishman wishes advocates of an all-out, two-front war on ISIS would stop bullshitting the public already about what that would entail:

No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. And no one will, because none exists.

But that has not prevented a slew of hacks and wonks from suggesting grandiose policy goals without paying serious attention to the costs of implementation and the fragility of the U.S. political consensus for achieving those goals. Although ISIL has some characteristics of a state now, it still has the resilience of an ideologically motivated terrorist organization that will survive and perhaps even thrive in the face of setbacks. We must never again make the mistake that we made in 2008, which was to assume that we have destroyed a jihadist organization because we have pushed it out of former safe-havens and inhibited its ability to hold territory. Bombing ISIL will not destroy it. Giving the Kurds sniper rifles or artillery will not destroy it. A new prime minister in Iraq will not destroy it.

Please do not step in here with the fly-paper argument: that the conflict will attract the world’s would-be jihadis to one geographic area where we can target them all and thereby solve the problem. Notice that no authorities on jihadism ever make this argument. That is because they understand that war makes the jihadist movement stronger, even in the face of major tactical and operational defeats.

There is a case to be made for this war. It is not the case that its backers are making. They still seem to inhabit the same alternate universe as Donald Rumsfeld, in which the only limit to what American power can accomplish is the imagination of the Commander-in-Chief. I may not support all of Obama’s foreign policy choices, but I find it reassuring that he is nowhere near as prone as his predecessor was to flights of imperial fancy. As Fishman rightly points out, one cannot make the argument that the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq precipitated the current crisis without also acknowledging that the 2003 invasion set the ball rolling. The honest case for more intervention now, it seems to me, is that Bush’s Iraq adventure obligated the US to accept responsibility for maintaining the new Iraqi order we created and protecting the people of the Middle East from the jihadist menace our war unleashed.

But the usual suspects can’t make that argument, because to do so, they’d have to admit that they were wrong in the first place.