More Questions than Answers on Iraq

The U.S. bombing campaign being waged against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) raises more questions than it answers. Ben Friedman noted the muddle of U.S. policy here. Among the most vexing questions for me:

- What is the actual end game? Can it be achieved by the means being employed?

The narrow, short-term mission that President Obama laid before the American people on Thursday evening is almost entirely humanitarian: this is about saving the lives of desperate people, including women and children stranded without food and water. But unlike relief operations after hurricanes or earthquakes, where the U.S. military’s efforts face little resistance, the suffering in Iraq today is man-made. ISIS has targeted particular groups for persecution, or worse. The first order of business, therefore, after delivering essential food and water, is to allow these stranded people to escape.

But this will not be an easy task. As Richard Betts explained nearly two decades ago, there is no such thing as an impartial humanitarian intervention. What Obama has actually committed to, then, involves, at a minimum, sufficiently degrading ISIS’s military capabilities, prying open the vice being tightened around these people, and establishing a corridor through which they can flee to an as-yet undetermined safe haven. A long-term solution involves creating an Iraqi state (or more than one?) that can produce and maintain sufficient fighting power of its own.

That final point isn’t new. It has been the object since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or, arguably, since Hussein’s ouster from Kuwait in 1991, when George H.W. Bush hoped for a new political order in Iraq, but refused to risk large numbers of American lives to achieve it. The end game hasn’t really changed, yet the president failed to explain why our efforts this time will be more successful than at any time in the last quarter century.

- Can the U.S. role remain limited? How?

This is presumably a major concern among the American people, who are staunchly opposed to restarting a war that most think was a mistake. But public opposition to military intervention isn’t limited to Iraq. Recall the outcry when Secretary of State John Kerry proposed an “unbelievably small” military operation in Syria. The public feared then that small wars can easily become big ones. That attitude hasn’t changed in the past year. If anything, the public is even more opposed to missions involving the U.S. military.

- If ISIS poses such a threat, why aren’t others responding at least as forcefully as the United States?

This isn’t strictly a matter of capacity. The groups fighting ISIS would surely like to have better weapons and training (who wouldn’t?), but they are not fighting a modern nation-state with the full range of military capabities, including, especially, air power. ISIS is believed to have some modern weapons, including those captured from the Iraqi military, and, therefore, some U.S. weapons. But ISIS fighters lack training to properly use these weapons. Fanaticism alone cannot explain why this rag-tag band, wielding pilfered weapons, has so far bested organized military forces or other determined militias. 

- Related, what has happened to the Kurds?

The vaunted peshmerga were supposedly driven away without much of a fight. Most of ISIS’s recent gains, including those that left thousands starving and deperate on a mountainside, were in Kurdish territories. So, either the peshmerga’s fighting prowess was overstated, or they haven’t fully committed to stopping ISIS’s advance. Perhaps the territory that they’ve surrendered so far isn’t a vital interest for them; they’ve merely redeployed to more strategically significant areas. If so, the fight isn’t over, and ISIS’s path to control over most of Iraq is still far from certain. Recent reports suggest fierce fighting between Kurdish and ISIS forces, including near the crucial city of Erbil.

The Kurds might have been holding back because they were more fearful of the Iraqi government than of ISIS. This might seem to be pretty shortsighted, particularly as ISIS continues to take territory, but it wouldn’t be the first time that an ethnic minority group in Iraq behaved that way.