Pull the E-Brake on Perpetual US War in the Middle East

The New York Times editorial board has finally awakened to Obama’s “strategy” in the “war” (as it is officially called now) against ISIS. It is essentially the same strategy that has guided literally hundreds of US military operations abroad since World War II: achieve the maximum objective with the minimum commitment of US power and prestige. Trouble is, the strategy just doesn’t work, mainly because the enemy won’t cooperate and friendly forces are either inept or unpopular (or both). Thus begins the slippery slope to wider and deeper involvement.

The Sept. 16, 2014 testimony of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is what got the Times’ attention: “If we got to the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.” A day later on Sept. 17, the Army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, chimed in: “You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting [IS forces] out.” In short, Obama’s supposed commitment not to deploy US ground troops to combat in Iraq or Syria—“a profound mistake,” he said Sept. 7 on the NBC News program Meet the Press—is as firm as mud. As happened in Vietnam, there will be “advisers,” more and more of them, as it becomes plain that the mini-max strategy of relying on air power to “degrade and destroy” ISIS proves insufficient.

Even without Dempsey’s and Odierno’s remarks, the Times and others should have seen the handwriting on the wall: The widening of air targets from those originally announced (they were supposed to be limited to protecting threatened populations and US personnel); the increasing number of US advisers; the avoidance of a Congressional vote; the quick resort to air strikes in Syria without United Nations or Syrian authorization; the shift in categorizing the conflict from a “counterterrorism” operation to “war”; the shrill voices of pro-war Republicans and former military officers tied to defense contractors—all these suggested mission creep.

President Obama has followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps by indicating that the war against terrorism will extend well beyond his presidency. Recall Bush’s speech to West Point cadets in 2006: “The war began on my watch. But it’s going to end on your watch.” Now here is Obama on Sept. 12: “This [conflict] will be a problem for the next president, and probably the one after that.” At the UN on Sept. 23, Obama formally upgraded the “problem” of ISIS to an historic venture, saying it would determine, “whether the nations here today will be able to renew the purpose of the UN’s founding; and whether we will come together to reject the cancer of violent extremism.” He spoke as though announcing the start of World War III.

ISIS poses a serious threat to various governments in the Middle East, but it is not a national security threat to the United States. Though several governments are now said to be contributing to the US air strikes in Iraq and Syria, make no mistake: This is an American operation, just like the two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. Take away US control and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the others would actually have to defend themselves. Interviewed on “60 Minutes” last Sunday, Obama acknowledged US leadership of the war, but said that has always been the case and that—in an eerie echo of a famous Madeleine Albright remark—“we are the indispensable nation.”

In his Sept. 16 article in the Financial Times, the perceptive observer Ahmed Rashid has written that governments and publics throughout the Middle East, most certainly including those now being counted on to support the latest “coalition of the willing,” are deeply suspicious of and hateful toward the US. As much as they fear ISIS, Rashid writes, they don’t trust the US after watching it fumble and stumble in Iraq and Syria; and they worry about associating with the US and becoming a target of pro-ISIS groups in their own country. Professor Mark Katz, reporting about a conference he attended in Riyadh, adds to this picture in his Sept. 19 blog post: Influential people in the Arabian Gulf states tend to blame the US for the rise of ISIS, believe dealing with ISIS is therefore mainly a US responsibility, and point to other security issues that are equally important to them (such as the unstable situation in Yemen, Shi’a extremism, and of course the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.)

So, here are the bottom-line questions: Is it sensible, and in the US national interest, to support ever-deepening intervention in the Middle East? Does anyone believe a military solution to the ISIS advance is possible or desirable, particularly inasmuch as ISIS arose out of three civil wars (in Gaza, Syria and Iraq) that can only be resolved by political agreements? No and no. Our media may not get it fast enough. Regardless, Congress and the American public must swiftly pull the e-brake on the ISIS mission and perpetual US warmaking in the Middle East. Our national security and that of the next generation depend on it.