If Barack Obama owes his presidency to one thing, it was the good sense he had back in 2002 to call the Iraq War what it was: “dumb.”
Now, with scarcely a whisper of debate, Obama has become the fourth consecutive US president to bomb Iraq — and in fact has outdone his predecessors by spreading the war to Islamic State targets in Syria as well. With the Pentagon predicting that this latest conflict could rage for three years or longer, Obama is now poised to leave behind a Middle East quagmire that closely resembles the one he was elected to end.
Obama says the plan is to hammer Islamic State targets from the air while bolstering partners on the ground. There are two big problems with this.
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First, bombs kill and injure civilians, potentially radicalizing their friends and families.
Look no further than the drone war battlegrounds of Yemen and Pakistan, where terrorist recruiters have exploited the severe trauma inflicted on civilians there to sign up new members. A similar dynamic could play out in Iraq and Syria, where the White House has suspended the already paltry rules meant to limit civilian casualties from drone strikes.
Second, those partners on the ground come with a lot of baggage.
Despite outnumbering Islamic State forces 40 to 1, the Iraqi Army turned over Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — without firing a shot, leaving behind millions of dollars worth of advanced US military equipment. And when the Iraqi Army does fight, it has a nasty penchant for dropping indiscriminate (and illegal) barrel bombs on civilian neighborhoods, as it did in Islamist-held Fallujah earlier this year.
Shiite militias may step in to fill the gap left by the Iraqi Army. But many of these groups were deeply involved in the sectarian bloodletting of Iraq’s turbulent post-invasion years, and some have refused to collaborate with the United States.
While the Kurds may prove more reliable allies, their first priority is to consolidate their own territory in Iraq — as evidenced by their seizure of the disputed (and oil-rich) city of Kirkuk during the chaos of the Islamic State invasion in June.
In Syria, the options are even worse: It’s either the dictator Bashar al-Assad — with whom Washington has refused to cooperate — or a gaggle of so-called “moderate” Syrian rebel groups that the White House plans to vet, train, and arm to the teeth.
The CIA, which has been working directly with Syrian rebels in Jordan, is reportedly deeply skeptical of this plan. These rebels are unlikely to defeat either Assad or the Islamic State, much less both of them. A better bet is, like the even better-funded Iraqi Army, many of them will wind up turning their arms over to the Islamic State’s fighters.
Remember this: If the Islamic State gets beaten back, the United States will be responsible for whatever takes its place. As Washington should have learned after funding Osama bin Laden’s crusade against the Soviets in Afghanistan — supplying the very fighters who would later form groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban — the enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.
The Islamic State is gaining ground because of political breakdowns on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. That vacuum is one salient legacy of the last war in Iraq. Pumping more money, bombs, and arms into the region will only deepen the crisis — while turning more Americans into targets.
If Washington wants to do something about the Islamic State, it should send humanitarian aid to displaced civilians, restart talks to end Syria’s civil war, and condition all assistance to Baghdad on its willingness to improve conditions for Iraq’s Sunni minority.
The last thing Obama should do is fight a war for allies who are losing a popularity contest to a group that beheads people.