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.