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Opinion: History and The Third Iraq War

An undated image of Iraqi Security Forces.

An undated image of Iraqi Security Forces.

No one blames President Richard Nixon and his Vietnamization policy for the disastrous collapse of South Vietnam in April of 1975.
Rather, the consensus of history upholds that it was the sins of commission by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, beginning in 1964, that led the U.S. into the complex and strategically disastrous war in Vietnam. Despite former Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent attempts to tag the Obama administration with blame for the current chaos in Iraq, the judgment of history is already firmly established on how we helped to create the conditions for the latest crisis — and it was not because 5000 American troops were not left in Iraq after Dec. 2011.

Within the political debate over who is to blame for the current crisis there is an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and try, this time, to take what we have learned about Iraq and the region to look for smarter options that may make help to restore some semblance of order to Iraq.

In the 5th Century BCE the ancient Athenian Thucydides observed that wars are fought for reasons of “fear, honor and interest.” This is a timeless truth by which we can still understand geopolitics.

As applied to America’s wars in Iraq, Thucydides three simple conditions for why we are now involved in our third war in Iraq in the past 25 years proves that a stable — or at least contained — Iraq is in our national interest. Notable is the fact that several presidential administrations of different stripes have evaluated this question of national interest and decided that a stable Iraq was important enough to expend American blood and treasure. Thus, Thucydides’ conditions for national interest have been tested and met.

Many Americans today argue that something must be done to abate the crisis in Iraq because our honor is at stake. The logic follows that because we have invested so much in Iraq, we must sally forth once again to preserve what we fought so hard to create. Honor is an emotional subject, and while no disrespect is intended to my fellow Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans or their families, the judgment of history already leans toward defining the Second Iraq War (2003-2011) as a major strategic disaster.

After a quarter century of war against various forces in Iraq, one must ask what is to be gained by expending even more American blood and treasure? Or, perhaps more importantly, how do we see an increased American involvement creating a better outcome for Iraq than Operation Iraqi Freedom did from 2003-2011?

The answer may be a different type of response than we saw in 1991 or 2003. Perhaps the lower profile use of intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and special operations forces (SOF) the U.S. are now employing is the appropriate response?

What is definitely not the right response is a robust American face on leading the fight against Iraq and Syria Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) forces. While this action might please those wanting to restore America’s honor, it will lend nothing towards bolstering the credibility of the Iraqi Government that we helped to create. America leading the charge would be a major setback for the U.S. and our allies in Iraq.

Keep in mind that the U.S. tried very hard for eight years to “win” in Iraq. Unlike the Vietnam War, or even Desert Storm, there were no political restraints on the U.S. military in Iraq. American forces killed or captured every enemy combatant they could identify. Apparently that was not enough to secure a lasting peace. If, as some contend, the threat is even greater now than it was imagined to be in 2003, then we may have a case for renewing our efforts to eliminate the threat.

Eliminating ISIL would require an operation more like Desert Storm, one that involves a coalition of our regional allies that are most immediately being threatened by ISIL. The best option may be a regional coalition, led by the Iraqi Army, consisting of nations with the shared goal of eliminating ISIL. As an early indication of regional reactions, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have both recently bolstered their military presence on their borders with Iraq; however, the threshold for intervening directly as a coalition to restore order in Iraq appears far from being met. Cries of “wolf” from Capitol Hill are likely to be ignored until there is tangible evidence that as Secretary of Defense Hagel stated “ISIL poses a clear and imminent threat” to the U.S. and its allies.

Fear has played as important a role in the rhetoric of some of America’s leaders in this crisis as it did in the events leading up to the second Iraq war in 2003. Some now contend that Iraq will become a bastion of terrorism. This is a real cause for concern. After all, current al-Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote in 2001:

“Armies achieve victory only when the infantry takes hold of land. Likewise, the mujahid Islamic movement will not triumph against the world coalition unless it possesses a fundamentalist base in the heart of the Islamic world. All the means and plans that we have reviewed for mobilizing the nation will remain up in the air without a tangible gain or benefit unless they lead to the establishment of the state of caliphate in the heart of the Islamic world.”

This “fundamentalist base” may be what some members of ISIL hope to achieve. While that is something that Western World and our allies in the Middle East should indeed fear, I would suggest that al-Qaeda (AQ) forces in the ISIL should fear having a return address. After all, the U.S. and its allies have demonstrated repeatedly that they will relentlessly pursue AQ forces in every corner of the world. The commitment of ISR and SOF forces to assist the Iraqi Army suggests that it does not appear that the ISIL controlled region of Iraq will be any different.

Keeping Thucydides in mind, it appears at this juncture that fear is the greatest motive for action against the ISIL forces. America’s interest in a stable Iraq is clearly still worth continued investment. That investment may take the form of what we see today—ISR and SOF assisting the Iraqi Army.

American ISR and SOF have worked very well for the U.S. in combatting terrorists and insurgents around the world and it will work in helping Iraq defeat ISIL forces. While this approach may not be the chest beating and flag waiving reaction that those wanting to protect America’s honor long for, it is the best approach — the smarter approach — to preserving a stable Iraq and keeping the bad guys on the ropes until our allies in the region are ready to retake control of their own neighborhood.

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Categories: Budget Industry, News & Analysis

About Cmdr. Daniel Dolan

Cmdr. Daniel Dolan is assigned to the Naval War College where he teaches Strategy and War and serves as the Deputy Manager of the Chief of Naval Operations Professional Reading Program. He is an EP-3/special mission P-3 Naval Flight Officer and frequent contributor to Proceedings. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent an official position of the Naval War College, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Actually, the ‘blame’ for Vietnam goes back to the immediate post WWII days when the USA upheld the French government’s claims on their colonies in Indochina. While the rest of Europe was unlimbering their colonial holdings, the French resisted, and we got pulled into all that, to our detriment.

    Also, concerning actual history, it was not the ‘Vietnamization’ program that led to South Vietnam’s demise, it was the AMERICAN Congress reneging on agreements made to the South Vietnamese government about aid and assistance if the North ever attacked again. Those agreements were crucial given that the North were allowed to keep standing forces in the South and in Cambodia and Laos after our troops were pulled out, and THOSE provisions were indeed permitted by the negotiating team appointed by Nixon!

    As for lessons learned concerning Iraq (and by extension Afghanistan), I think the main one is that you cannot expect to overturn literally thousands of years of animus within the time constraints of any given presidential term(s). We are STILL in Japan and Germany a full generation after WWII, and the same can be said about South Korea. Understand that the world of the ‘Cold War’ had perils and responsibilities that were totally different than those of today. But they involved commitments NOT defined by what party occupied the WH, but by what conscrued the long term national interest. Japan and Germany, two historically “warring” societies, are now almost completely ‘pacified’ because of that commitment. While some might be able to argue that we may not need to be in either country these days, our long term presence there shaped their present societies and governments and political systems. THAT, to me, is the most earnest lesson to take away from Iraq: in any future similar endeavors, will we stay the course to ensure that no more ISIS’s can sprout up and do so much damage and undo so much progress? Will we stay long enough to ensure that the NEXT generation of a country’s citizens have a more stable foundation for propelling their society forward? Obviously, we chose NOT to do that in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ll just have to see how the cards fall going forward.

  • Secundius

    Yeah, I see our US. supplied illustrious Iraqi Army, literally handed over several M198 155mm/52-caliber (6.1-inch) Towed Howitzers. With a standard firing range of 18,100-meters and maximum firing range of 30,000-meters, too ISIS without firing a shot. Tell me again like I’m a 5th-grader, why are even trying to help or save the Iraqi’s. If they keep Cut-and-Run, doing an automatic On-The-Bug-Out. At not even the First signs of danger, when ISIS might shows up.

    There like the South Vietnamese, they what somebody else to the fighting and the dying. Where the Famed Iraqi Republican Guard now, probably hiding under their beds.

  • Ctrot

    Of course no one blames Nixon for the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975; he wasn’t president at the time and thus could have done nothing to prevent it. However Nixon had already “won” the Vietnam war with Linebacker II.

    Nor does the blame for South Vietnams collapse fall on LBJ, for similar reasons. He oversaw a disastrous war policy during his presidency but that didn’t cause the final collapse of South Vietnam.

    The fault for the collapse of South Vietnam, as far as US fault goes at least, lies with the democrats of the United States Congress in 1975. They refused aid to South Vietnam that had already been promised because they were war weary and knew that the American people would not really care.

    Likewise the blame for the current ongoing debacle, again as far as US fault goes, lies with the Obama administration. Again he calculates that a war weary American people will not much care what happens to Iraq and regardless he and they can place ultimate responsibility on George W. Bush.

    But Bush, like Nixon in Vietnam, had done all he could do by the end of his term to “win” the Iraq war. The surge had devastated Al Qaeda and the insurgency. Obamas failure to negotiate an extension of the status of forces agreement the Bush administration had signed with Iraq in 2008 led directly to the chaos that Iraq faces today. All the blood and treasure the US expended in Iraq is rapidly being wasted by Obama failures. But he couldn’t care less so long as the political blame doesn’t tarnish his legacy.

    • H. H. GAFFNEY

      Thanks for the Republican party line — I’ve known it before. Why on earth did Bush sign that agreement that said we would be outta there by the end of 2011? It was Bush that decided to bug out.

      • RealAmerican

        Your knowledge is sorely lacking. But that makes you eminently qualified to be a Liberal

    • Secundius

      @ Ctrot.

      Why would blame Nixon! He had no control of the fall of Saigon, the South Vietnam people did. For god sakes, the South Vietnamese didn’t want fight to save their own country. Axiom: “You get, What you Deserve”.

  • aniptofar

    A robust desert storm type of mission would just cause the ISIS to dissolve into the countryside until we leave.

    The fault is the STOFA and the response to the initial Syria problem. Both fall firmly on this administration’s incompetent shoulders.

    • totalitat

      And when we leave and they reincorporate right back? Or are you suggesting a permanent occupation?

      • aniptofar

        That was my point.

        • totalitat

          Whoops! My misread.

  • Pat Patterson

    Nixon wasn’t blamed because the Democrats got what they wanted – finally getting rid of Nixon whom they hated because he defeated favored California Representative Helen Gahagan Douglas for US Senate in 1950 and his investigation of Alger Hiss. Plus peoplewanted to forget about Vietnam and get passed Watergate. Obama however owns Iraq now. He wanted nothing more than to get out of there as fast as possible before the 2012 election. I doubt he ever really wanted to negotiate
    with al-Maliki for an SOF agreement and make it happen. It is said that the Iraqis didn’t want any troops to stay. Probably true, but al-Maliki could have made it happen like he
    has with so many other decisions. It is possible that with the added time for additional training of Iraqi troops plus the influence we would or could have had because of our troops might have made a difference or just delayed the inevitable. But combined with the Arab Spring, bombing of Libya by NATO, Syria, and Israel-Hamas business, it’s all on Obama’s watch. Time to stop blaming everything on everyone else.

  • TronsAway

    You place a remarkable amount of faith on US assymetric advantages in Special Operations Forces and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance, while in previous articles criticizing advantages in airpower as a means of achieving US objectives. SOF, like airpower, is a transient application of violence. Neither SOF nor aircraft can hold territory, at least not for long. Much of the SOF actions during the occupation were direct action raids supported heavily by conventional capabilities. They lived and ate on FOBs protected by conventional forces, they drove on roads cleared and patrolled by conventional forces, they executed missions under the cover of a stack of CAS/C2/gunships/jammer aircraft. Much of the training/FID missions fell on conventional forces. I appreciate the rough men that kick down the door in the middle of the night, but there was a lot more support then than there is now.

    What I’d really like to know before we choose which tool we will use to best support US policy – what is US policy? What is our strategy? A stable Iraq – to what end and at what cost? Billions of dollars, thousands of troops, and a decade of stability operations didn’t stabilize Iraq – or at least it was going to require a generational commitment of the same. How will 200 SF advisors accomplish the mission – by the transient application of violence through US assymetric advantage?

    While I’m not a fan of the “Merica, with us or agin us” or “they hate us for our freedom” foreign policy, I’m also not particularly fond of the “whatever the Administration is currently doing, or not doing, is the correct thing, it’s measured and nuanced, you’re just not smart enough to understand it” approach.

  • Non-Globalist

    It would really be practical if the US stopped all external aid and let the chips fall where they may. Unlike historic relationship described by the Commander in the opinion, why don’t we try a leave us alone’ and we won’t bother you approach’ to the externalities of the globe and see if any other nation can come up with a Constitutional republic form of government as opposed to the constant ‘Communist or Fascist’ systems that predominate, regardless whether we absentmindly call the Democracies or not. Why would it be so wrong to allow the non-republic forms of government to play out their hand until a people would arrive at the conclusion that it isn’t successful except for the few, rise up, and discover the Constitutional republic form? It is entirely possible that greed and corruption are so rampant in the globe that such can never happen – but optimist me would at least like to see an attempt as such non-intervention. The ‘great one’ regardless of how identified, would eventually sort it all out or we’d know it is actually ours to achieve or not – mystery solved.

    • RealAmerican

      You’re jaw-droppingly naive

  • CAPTKeith

    The below statement is categorically untrue:
    “Keep in mind that the U.S. tried very hard for eight years to “win” in Iraq. Unlike the Vietnam War, or even Desert Storm, there were no political restraints on the U.S. military in Iraq. American forces killed or captured every enemy combatant they could identify.”

    I personally witnessed individuals in charge of responding to terrorists planting IEDs in the road at 3 in the morning being restrained by phone from individuals thousands of miles away asking if the “eyes in the sky” could actually see the that bomb. The rules of engagement were so strict all the time that it was almost impossible to fight the terrorists. Even so, the war was won. Iraq was stable until our Commander in Chief walked away from Iraq without a status of forces agreement.

  • Turbo_lancer

    If anything good could be said out of the Viet Nam theater, it would be the established end to conscripted service, 40 years ago.

  • James Bowen

    South Vietnam collapsed and Iraq is collapsing because the populations of those two states fundamentally did/do not support their government and were/are not willing to fight to preserve it. There is not much we can do about that, no matter how powerful our army is.

  • CW Sherrill

    The good Commander has confidence that he can determine what is the “judgment of history” while conflict continues in Iraq. I suggest the Commander restrain his ego and offer his own opinion without claiming the right to speak for “history.” Unfortunately, the Commander’ opinion is nonsense. To claim there were no “political restraints” on the use of force in Iraq is simply false. Perhaps the Commander does not recall Iranian-sponsored militias attacking with Iranian-made EFPs. Overall, this piece is partisan rhetoric that reflects poorly on the author’s knowledge and judgment,