For those of us who strongly supported President Obama’s decision to withdraw military forces from Iraq, and are urging him to accelerate the timetable for the withdrawal he has announced in Afghanistan, the bombing of the brutal fanatics known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, raises questions that we are obligated to answer.
The short response is that I believe the president’s limited, targeted bombing to stop this murderous gang from massacring people it had trapped in northern Iraq was justified. But I strongly believe that the justification for that action – and the fact that it was effective in its very specific objective – is in no way an argument for a broader, ongoing U.S. resumption of combat activity in that area. It is not an argument either for sending American ground troops back into Iraq or extending our bombing into Syria.
It is important to remember that the reason we face this dilemma is the disastrous consequences of George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. It is true that the administration tried to accompany our military force with the promotion of political change, and religious reconciliation within that country would stave off this current tragedy. But the fact that we were unable to do so is precisely the point. We have the military force to prevail in any short-term situation; we do not have the power through military, economic or any other influence to create political coherence and religious tolerance in a society where that does not exist.
A very specific bombing pattern to relieve people being besieged in a specific situation is justifiable, in part because it is achievable. That justification does not extend to large-scale operations that not only cannot succeed, but are likely to bring greater chaos after they have failed.
The argument for sending U.S. military forces on the ground to Iraq – and Syria, too, in the minds of some – is that the combined forces opposed to the Islamic State cannot sustain themselves against it. That will be tragic if it is true, but it would be even more tragic for America to take on the responsibility of stepping in where those domestic forces cannot prevail and commit ourselves to an indefinite war – and ultimately the reoccupation of Iraq.
No national interest compels us to try to do this. There are strong humanitarian reasons for trying to constrain the Islamic State, and it would be entirely to the good if America could help rally a coalition of various powers, with regional countries in the lead, to bolster the opposition. In fact, there are, of course, already powerful military forces aligned on that side.
But to illustrate the impossibility of a coherent American military strategy that puts us on the ground in that situation, the leading opponents of the Islamic State at this point are Syria and Iran. From the military standpoint, carrying on a parallel anti-Islamic State war with Syrian forces on Syrian territory with no cooperation with the Syrian government makes no sense, and I doubt very much that any professional military leader advocates this.
The view that it is somehow America’s responsibility because we are “the leading world power” to use our military force if all else fails to stop violence and restore stable government everywhere in the Middle East has already been discredited. The president’s reluctant but effective use of air power to stop a massacre in no way refutes the recent history that confirms this general proposition.
I do have one criticism of the administration’s recent approach: I believe it should be doing more to urge regional powers to step in to confront murderous fanatics, and I was therefore disappointed to read, that in the most recent case where this finally happened, that we expressed anger.
A few days ago, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates cooperated to bomb the extreme, violent Islamic fundamentalists in Libya, in support of a more moderate faction. That is precisely the kind of action we should be encouraging. Instead, the American reaction was critical, in part, I regret to say, because we appeared to have been offended that our government did this without even telling us, much less asking our permission.
The Syrian regime is an oppressive one, but it does in fact appear at this point to be preferable to an Islamic State caliphate exercising the worst kind of religious tyranny over the Middle Eastern population.
Similarly, while we should be maximizing our effort to deter Iran from having a nuclear weapon, I would be very happy to see the Iranians use their force to repel the Islamic State assault. I would not want to live in Iran under the current government but I would much rather live there than to be a Kurd on the mountain that the Islamic State was threatening to storm.
There is one other important part of this debate that should be underlined: Those that do insist that the president go beyond what he has already done into a more sustained, ongoing combat role should recognize that our constitutional democracy requires that this be authorized by the Congress.
One of the most appalling aspects of the recent debate about force in the Middle East is the extent to which people unfairly criticized President Obama for asking Congress for the authority to bomb Syria when it used chemical weapons.
For decades, there has been an argument voiced by both Democrats and Republicans that we need to restrain unilateral presidential use of force, but in the one recent case in which a president decided to use force, he was denounced – primarily by a Congress seeking to duck the responsibility for tough decisions.
Indeed, this congressional reaction is a strong indication that the American public remains opposed, by strong margins and with strong feelings, to the deeper intervention in Middle East wars that many are urging Obama to undertake. Hypocritically, at a time when many conservative are criticizing the president for acting too often on his own authority without congressional approval, they’re actively resisting any effort by him to get congressional participation in the most momentous decision a country can make – sending its young people into combat.
This is a clear case where the public’s view is correct. A short-term intervention to prevent a massacre was a good thing, and it was carried out well. But using that as a starting point for a renewed large-scale, all-out U.S. military effort in the Middle East’s wars is an invitation to spend tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars on another futile effort to create, by the use of U.S. military force, the kind of political, social and religious structures in Iraq and elsewhere that can only emerge if the people of those countries decide they want them.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.
– Special to the Telegram