On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson called for a Declaration of War against Germany. His unreasonable policies regarding submarine warfare had made America’s entry well-nigh inevitable.
When President Barack Obama first spoke to the nation about Iraq, he sounded reluctant to be the fourth straight president to intervene militarily. However, the conditions he set on Washington’s participation guarantee a much broader and longer campaign.
President Wilson implemented a policy which ensured that war would result if Germany used the only maritime weapon it possessed capable of contesting London’s overwhelming naval advantage. Great Britain’s passenger liners carried munitions and were ordered to ram submarines which surfaced to inspect their cargoes. Germans started sinking passenger ships without notice.
Wilson’s position was that Americans had an absolute right to book passage on belligerent vessels carrying munitions through a war zone. The position was ludicrous. In January 1917 Berlin decided to unleash unlimited submarine warfare against London and Wilson got his casus belli.
President Obama appears to be heading down the same path. In his first televised speech on Iraq, the president indicated that the airstrikes would be limited to protecting U.S. personnel and vulnerable refugees.
This reasonable-sounding rationale offered an obvious bootstrap strategy to war by putting Americans in the path of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The first airstrike occurred on artillery that threatened not Americans, but Kurds.
Explained Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, ISIS “was using this artillery to shell Kurdish forces defending Erbil, where U.S. personnel are located.” Islamic radicals were not attacking Americans, American operations, or even Erbil. Rather, ISIL was threatening those protecting the city in which Americans and American facilities were located.
But Erbil is not the only de facto sanctuary protected by U.S. arms. The president explained: “We have an embassy in Baghdad, we have a consulate in Erbil, and we have to make sure that they are not threatened.”
He later broadened this approach: “We intend to stay vigilant, and take action if these terrorist forces threaten our personnel or facilities anywhere in Iraq, including our consulate in Erbil and our embassy in Baghdad.” Anywhere in Iraq.
Of course, no law of nature requires the United States to keep its people in harm’s way On Sunday, the State Department said it had shifted some employees from Erbil and Baghdad to Basra, Iraq, and Amman, Jordan.
With Erbil under immediate threat, the administration could bring out the rest of American personnel stationed there. However, said the president, “we’re not moving our embassy anytime soon. We’re not moving our consulate anytime soon.”
Contrast this with administration policy in Libya. At the end of July, factional violence escalated in Tripoli. State closed the embassy and removed the staff.
No doubt, the administration is reluctant to suspend diplomatic and military operations. However, as I point out on National Interest online: “entering the Iraqi conflict obviously is not necessary to protect U.S. personnel. In this case the administration appears to be choosing war, with safeguarding Americans the excuse.”
Imagine if in October 1941 the Roosevelt Administration had announced that it planned to launch airstrikes against German forces if they advanced closer to the Soviet capital of Moscow, in which the U.S. embassy and staff were located. Obviously American personnel could be evacuated. This policy would be entering the war against Berlin.
President Obama should level with the American people. If he plans to initiate aggressive military action against ISIS (or “engage in some offense,” as he put it), he should be forthright.
Instead, he apparently hopes to make U.S. participation inevitable through a time-honored bootstrap: keep Americans at risk and then intervene to save them. Woodrow Wilson would be proud.