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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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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.