War Again in Iraq and the American Desire Never to be Labeled a Loser

Fighters of the Islamic State (Associated Press)
Fighters of the Islamic State (AP/NYT)

W.J. Astore

In April 2009, I wrote an article for TomDispatch.com recounting Mary McCarthy’s critique of the American experience in Vietnam, and how her lessons applied to President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan.  A central lesson cited by McCarthy was the American desire never to be labeled a loser.  That desire explains, at least in part, the persistence of folly within the Obama Administration today, as Peter Van Buren explains in his latest article for TomDispatch, “Apocalypse Now, Iraq Edition: Fighting in Iraq Until Hell Freezes Over.”

Here’s what McCarthy had to say in 1968 about the American moment and the Vietnam War:

The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.

Obama campaigned in 2008 as a “hope” and “change” candidate who as president would end the war in Iraq (so he could prosecute the “better” war in Afghanistan).  Yet the U.S. finds itself yet again bombing widely in Iraq (and now Syria) while deploying thousands of military “advisers” (combat troops in plain speak).  And after six weeks of airstrikes in Iraq against ISIS, with indecisive results, how long before those U.S. “advisers” start taking the fight directly to the enemy on the ground?

The questions I posed for President Obama back in 2009 were these:

Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?

Similar questions apply to our latest military operations in Iraq and Syria.  Is the U.S. surging militarily just to avoid the label of “loser”?  And even if the U.S. “wins” this latest round (whatever “win” means), won’t the price paid be indistinguishable from defeat?

In his article, Van Buren offers an excellent summary of the U.S. experience in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam in 2003.  In his words:

The staggering costs of all this — $25 billion to train the Iraqi Army, $60 billion for the reconstruction-that-wasn’t, $2 trillion for the overall war, almost 4,500 Americans dead and more than 32,000 wounded, and an Iraqi death toll of more than 190,000 (though some estimates go as high as a million) — can now be measured against the results. The nine-year attempt to create an American client state in Iraq failed, tragically and completely. The proof of that is on today’s front pages.

According to the crudest possible calculation, we spent blood and got no oil. Instead, America’s war of terror resulted in the dissolution of a Middle Eastern post-Cold War stasis that, curiously enough, had been held together by Iraq’s previous autocratic ruler Saddam Hussein. We released a hornet’s nest of Islamic fervor, sectarianism, fundamentalism, and pan-nationalism. Islamic terror groups grew stronger and more diffuse by the year. That horrible lightning over the Middle East that’s left American foreign policy in such an ugly glare will last into our grandchildren’s days. There should have been so many futures. Now, there will be so few as the dead accumulate in the ruins of our hubris. That is all that we won.

Under a new president, elected in 2008 in part on his promise to end American military involvement in Iraq, Washington’s strategy morphed into the more media-palatable mantra of “no boots on the ground.” Instead, backed by aggressive intel and the “surgical” application of drone strikes and other kinds of air power, U.S. covert ops were to link up with the “moderate” elements in Islamic governments or among the rebels opposing them — depending on whether Washington was opting to support a thug government or thug fighters.

The results? Chaos in Libya, highlighted by the flow of advanced weaponry from the arsenals of the dead autocrat Muammar Gaddafi across the Middle East and significant parts of Africa, chaos in Yemen, chaos in Syria, chaos in Somalia, chaos in Kenya, chaos in South Sudan, and, of course, chaos in Iraq.

And then came the Islamic State (IS) and the new “caliphate,” the child born of a neglectful occupation and an autocratic Shia government out to put the Sunnis in their place once and for all. And suddenly we were heading back into Iraq. What, in August 2014, was initially promoted as a limited humanitarian effort to save the Yazidis, a small religious sect that no one in Washington or anywhere else in this country had previously heard of, quickly morphed into those 1,600 American troops back on the ground in Iraq and American planes in the skies from Kurdistan in the north to south of Baghdad. The Yazidis were either abandoned, or saved, or just not needed anymore. Who knows and who, by then, cared?  They had, after all, served their purpose handsomely as the casus belli of this war. Their agony at least had a horrific reality, unlike the supposed attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that propelled a widening war in Vietnam in 1964 or the nonexistent Iraqi WMDs that were the excuse for the invasion of 2003.

And this is how Van Buren concludes his article:

We’ve been here before, as the failures of American policy and strategy in Vietnam metastasized into war in Cambodia and Laos to deny sanctuary to North Vietnamese forces. As with ISIS, we were told that they were barbarians who sought to impose an evil philosophy across an entire region. They, too, famously needed to be fought “over there” to prevent them from attacking us here. We didn’t say “the Homeland” back then, but you get the picture.

As the similarities with Vietnam are telling, so is the difference. When the reality of America’s failure in Vietnam finally became so clear that there was no one left to lie to, America’s war there ended and the troops came home. They never went back. America is now fighting the Iraq War for the third time, somehow madly expecting different results, while guaranteeing only failure. To paraphrase a young John Kerry, himself back from Vietnam, who’ll be the last to die for that endless mistake? It seems as if it will be many years before we know.

That is indeed the question.  As Mary McCarthy noted about the Vietnam War, “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”

Back to 2014 and the present moment: The more troops committed against ISIS, the more bombing raids made, the more money spent, the more prestige put on the line, the fewer the options the United States has in the Middle East.  Indeed, the only option that remains is “to win,” since losing is unacceptable for the reason Mary McCarthy indicated.

But as Michael Murry, a Vietnam Veteran and regular contributor to this site, noted about Vietnam (citing Bernard Fall’s classic book, Street Without Joy), “You can’t do a wrong thing the right way,” and “We lose the day we start (these stupid imperial wars) and we win the day we stop.”  Put differently, just as with Vietnam, the Middle East is not an incredibly complex puzzle for us to solve; it’s simply an impossible situation.  Impossible for us.  Until we admit this, the U.S. can never “win”; it can only lose.

The U.S. finally “won” in Vietnam when we admitted defeat and left.  How long before we come to this realization in the Middle East?  Tragically, the persistence of American hubris, amplified by resistance to the very idea of being labeled a “loser,” suggests yet another long, bloody, learning curve.

Obama’s Speech on ISIS: More of the Same, As in Military Action (Updated)

Obama "consults" with Congress before ordering more bombing.  Note the irony of George Washington's portrait, the man who warned us to avoid foreign entanglements
Obama “consults” with Congress before ordering more bombing. Note the irony of George Washington’s portrait, the man who warned us to avoid foreign entanglements (Source: NYT)

W.J. Astore

President Obama’s speech tonight on the Islamic State (or ISIS) promises more military action.  More airstrikes, more boots on the ground (mainly Special Forces), more training for the Iraqi military (who have endured more than a decade’s worth of U.S. military training, with indifferent results), and more weapons sales (which often end up in the hands of ISIS, thereby necessitating more U.S. airstrikes to destroy them).

All of this is sadly predictable.  Call it the TINA militarized strategy, as in “There is no alternative” (TINA) but to call in the military.

There are three reasons for the TINA strategy.  One is domestic politics.  Facing elections in November, the Obama Administration and the Democrats must appear to be strong.  They must take military action, at least in their eyes, else risk being painted by Republicans as terrorist-appeasers.

The second reason is also obvious: The military option is the only one the U.S. is heavily invested in; the only option we’re prepared, mentally as well as physically, to embrace.  The U.S. is militarized; we see the military as offering quick results; indeed, the military promises such results; we’re impatient people; so we embrace the military.

Never mind the talk of another long war, perhaps of three years or longer.  When they bother to pay attention, what most Americans see on their TV and computer screens is quick results, like the video released by Central Command showing the U.S. military blowing up ISIS equipment (often, U.S. military equipment provided to Iraq but appropriated by ISIS).  And unlike those ISIS “medieval” beheadings, decapitation by laser-guided bomb is both unoffensive and justified.

And if we’re blowing things up with our 21st-century decapitation bombs, we must be winning — or, at least we’re doing something to avenge ISIS barbarism.  Better to do something than nothing.  Right?

The third reason is more subtle and it comes down to our embrace of “dominance” as our de facto military strategy.  Allow me to explain.  After World War II, the U.S. military embraced “containment” as the approach to the Soviet Union.  “Parity” was the buzzword, at least in the nuclear realm, and “deterrence” was the goal.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. did not become “a normal country in normal times,” nor did we cash in our peace dividends.  Instead, the U.S. military saw a chance for “global reach, global power,” global dominance in other words.  And that’s precisely the word the U.S. military uses: dominance (expanded sometimes to full spectrum dominance, as in land, sea, air, space, cyberspace, and who knows what else).

You can explain a lot of what’s happened since 9/11 with that single word: dominance.  The attacks of 9/11 put the lie to U.S. efforts to dominate global security, which drove the Bush/Cheney Administration to double down on the military option as the one and only way of showing the world who’s boss.  Clear failures of the military option in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere did not encourage soul-searching; rather, it simply drove Obama and his generals to promise that “this time, we’ll do it (bombing and raids and interventions) better and smarter” than the previous administration.

There’s simply no learning curve when your overall goal is to exercise dominance each and every time you’re challenged. Ask John McCain.

So as you listen to the president’s speech tonight, keep those three elements in mind: domestic politics, our enormous investment (cultural as well as financial) in the military and our preference for quick results at any price, and finally our desire to exercise dominance across the globe.  It may help you to parse the president’s words more effectively.  Perhaps it will also explain why our leaders never seem to learn.  It’s not because they’re stupid: it’s because their careers and commitments require them not to learn.

Bombs away.

Update: There’s another aspect of our dominance that is fascinating to consider.  The US sees its dominance as benevolent or benign, never as bellicose or baneful.  This is reflected brilliantly in the US Navy’s current motto, “A global force for good.”  Not to deny that the Navy does good work, but I’m not sure we’d applaud if F-18s were dropping laser-guided bombs on our troops.  The point is that as a society we have a willed blindness to how our “dominance” plays out in the rest of the world.  We only seem to care when that “dominance” comes to Main Street USA, as it did recently in Ferguson, Mo.  (The ongoing militarization of police forces, and their aggressiveness toward ordinary people, are surely signs of “dominance,” but who wants to argue this is benevolent or benign in intent?)

If another country sought global reach/global power through military dominance, that country would be instantly denounced by US leaders as inherently hostile and treated as a major threat to world peace.

Update 2 (9/12/14):  Dan Froomkin at The Intercept has a stimulating round-up of criticism about Obama’s latest plans for war (courtesy of Tom Engelhardt at TomDispatch.com).  A summary:

Yesterday, Dan Froomkin of the Intercept offered a fairly devastating round-up of news reports from the mainstream (finally coming in, after much deferential and semi-hysterical reportage!) suggesting just what a fool’s errand the latest expansion of the U.S. intervention in Iraq/Syria could be. (And today’s NY Times has more of the same.) Here are just some selections from his post. Tom Engelhardt

“President Obama’s plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State counts on pretty much everything going right in a region of the world where pretty much anything the U.S. does always goes wrong. Our newspapers of record today finally remembered it’s their job to point stuff like that out.

“The New York Times, in particular, calls bullshit this morning — albeit without breaking from the classic detached Timesian tonelessness. Mark Mazzetti, Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler (with contributions from Matt Apuzzo and James Risen) start by pointing out the essential but often overlooked fact that ‘American intelligence agencies have concluded that [the Islamic State] poses no immediate threat to the United States.’

“And then, with the cover of ‘some officials and terrorism experts,’ they share a devastating analysis of all the coverage that has come before: ‘Some officials and terrorism experts believe that the actual danger posed by ISIS has been distorted in hours of television punditry and alarmist statements by politicians, and that there has been little substantive public debate about the unintended consequences of expanding American military action in the Middle East….’

“In the Washington Post this morning, Rajiv Chandrasekaran focuses on all the implausible things that have to go right beyond ‘U.S. bombs and missiles hitting their intended targets’: ‘In Iraq, dissolved elements of the army will have to regroup and fight with conviction. Political leaders will have to reach compromises on the allocation of power and money in ways that have eluded them for years. Disenfranchised Sunni tribesmen will have to muster the will to join the government’s battle. European and Arab allies will have to hang together, Washington will have to tolerate the resurgence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias it once fought, and U.S. commanders will have to orchestrate an air war without ground-level guidance from American combat forces…’

“The McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau , finally no longer alone in expressing skepticism about Obama’s plans, goes all Buzzfeed with a Hannah Allam story: ‘5 potential pitfalls in Obama’s plan to combat the Islamic State’. Allam notes that Yemen and Somalia are hardly examples of success; that the new Iraqi government is hardly “inclusive”; that training of Iraqi soldiers hasn’t worked in the past; that in Syria it’s unclear which “opposition” Obama intends to support; and that it may be too late to cut off the flow of fighters and funds.”

https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/09/11/news-organizations-finally-realize-obamas-war-plan-messed/

Update 3 (9/12/14): US Army Colonel (ret.) Andrew Bacevich has a sound critique of the bankruptcy of Obama’s strategy.  Here’s an excerpt:

Destroying what Obama calls the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant won’t create an effective and legitimate Iraqi state. It won’t restore the possibility of a democratic Egypt. It won’t dissuade Saudi Arabia from funding jihadists. It won’t pull Libya back from the brink of anarchy. It won’t end the Syrian civil war.  It won’t bring peace and harmony to Somalia and Yemen. It won’t persuade the Taliban to lay down their arms in Afghanistan. It won’t end the perpetual crisis of Pakistan. It certainly won’t resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

All the military power in the world won’t solve those problems. Obama knows that. Yet he is allowing himself to be drawn back into the very war that he once correctly denounced as stupid and unnecessary — mostly because he and his advisers don’t know what else to do. Bombing has become his administration’s default option.

Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.