At War With ISIS

President Obama has authorized airstrikes against ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the notional “caliphate”, to protect our consulate in Erbil and, if necessary, our embassy in Baghdad:

President Obama authorized airstrikes “if necessary” against Islamic militants if they move toward Erbil in northern Iraq where American military, diplomats and civilians are stationed.

During a late night statement Thursday from the White House, the president said he’s okayed “targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.”

Mr. Obama explained that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in recent days has “continued to move across Iraq and have neared the city of Erbil, where American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces to stop the advance on Erbil.

ISIS is presently consolidating the areas of Iraq it presently controls and slowly extending that control. At some point I strongly suspect it is likely to move on Baghdad. In the areas it controls it is exterminating Christians. The surviving members of the small Iraqi Yezidi sect are now besieged on a mountaintop. If there were ever a case for a responsibility to protect this is it.

The Security Council has not authorized military action by the United States in Iraq and, unless it does or until it threatens our consulate in Erbil directly, military action by the U. S. in Iraq will be on shaky legal ground. IIRC it wasn’t too long ago that many were urging us to stay out of the conflict in Iraq. If they change their views once the president has authorized the use of force, the will abandon any pretext of coherence.

Just to make my own views clear I think that President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was an error, the treaty he negotiated with the Maliki government was an error, and President Obama’s adherence to that agreement was an error. Contrary to the president’s assertions of just a few years ago Iraq is clearly not stable and is not able to defend itself. The editors of the Wall Street Journal concur:

For President Obama, any decision to reinforce the Iraqis or Kurds will be painful. On Thursday night he still took credit for removing all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. He was at pains to reassure Americans that the U.S. will not fight another war in Iraq even as he committed U.S. air power to the war that continues in Iraq.

It’s clear now that his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops in 2011 was a strategic and increasingly a moral disaster. The President—which is to say the United States—bears responsibility now for the humanitarian catastrophe occurring in Iraq, just as it did for the mass flight of Vietnam’s boat people, some two million, after the Communist triumph in the 1970s.

Before using force in Iraq, the president should seek Congressional authorization and gain the support of the American people. Don’t be gulled into believing that ISIS’s progress can be stopped with air power alone.

38 comments… add one

  • PD Shaw

    The 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force “against the continuing threat posed by Iraq” is still available, and has not been repealed as urged by Susan Rice. It is not difficult to see this as applying if you view the current situation as a result of long-term problems, and particularly if you believe that the U.S. withdrew forces too quickly (either with foresight or hindsight). This would be my preference, so it probably won’t happen this way.

  • ...

    Back to war in Iraq. Just like the previous three President’s.

    I’m beginning to suspect we don’t know what we’re doing in that part of the world.

  • ...

    Seven years ago Obama said we shouldn’t stay in Iraq to prevent genocide.

    Seven months ago Obama called ISIS the junior varsity, not worthy of our attention.

    I wonder what other assurances are about to be invalidated?

  • ...

    Anyone care to speculate where those 300 members of US special forces deployed in Iraq in June (days after the assurance there would be no US “boots on the ground”) are now? Against non-fixed targets, spotters on the ground are rather helpful.

  • PD Shaw

    At a minimum, I would like to see our tanks and heavy equipment being used by ISIS taken out of service.

  • ...

    Wait a second, weren’t we upset with Assad last year for killing these guys?

  • Andy

    “The Security Council has not authorized military action by the United States in Iraq and, unless it does or until it threatens our consulate in Erbil directly, military action by the U. S. in Iraq will be on shaky legal ground.”

    The legal ground is very solid. It only becomes shaky should the US begin to conduct offensive military actions not related to the defense of US persons and property, or if it were to become the fire support for an Iraqi military effort to roll back ISIS. In either of those cases the President should seek Congressional authorization. We are a long way from that right now. US forces are operating in and over Iraq with the consent of the Iraqi government (such as it is), and conducting military operations which are completely consistent with the inherent right of self defense which is part of both the laws of armed conflict and the UN charter. That legal justification could not be more clear.

  • PD Shaw

    @Andy, the consent of Iraq is important for international reasons. On the domestic side, Obama did say one of the justifications is to prevent genocide, which is beyond self-defense.

    The tension in these things is always a potential conflict between ends and means. If military force is justified on certain grounds, the President may decide that the best strategy may be to address other grounds in the process.

  • ...

    Why is stopping genocide important now but was beneath consideration seven years ago?

  • PD Shaw

    Elipses, you’ll have to remind me of which genocide was occurring seven years ago. To me, the irony here is that we appear to be moved to protect a heretofore unknown religious sect, while ISIS is proceeding to kill Muslims, Christians and Zoroastrians with the same motive. It would be as if the U.S. intervened to stop Hitler from killing the Afro-Germans (the so-called Rhineland Bastards), but didn’t profess interest in the Jews, Gypsies and Slavs.

  • Ben Wolf

    I question the efficacy of air power at all. Nearly all the targets will be in cities and towns where we’re more likely to fry civilians than combatants. I think there will be increasing pressure for U.S. ground intervention, particularly as representatives of those countries most publicly wringing their hands are virtually certain to not take any significant action beyond castigating the President for supposed failure of leadership.

  • ...

    PD, seven years back Obama stated that preventing genocide was not sufficient reason for the US to remain in Iraq. The only consistency I see in his position is that he will do or say whatever leads to maximum gains for his own career.

  • ...

    Ben, I strongly suspect that we’ve got special forces in the area to call in air strikes. That would increase their efficacy, though perhaps not enough.

    If the president were going to take action, it should have been months ago before ISIS matriculated to the varsity team, completely routed the Iraqi military, put the Kurds under pressure and occupied a large chunk of Iraq. Since we didn’t act then, we shouldn’t now, especially not for a pine needle to cover our ass.

    Time to admit that no one on either side of the aisle in DC knows what they’re doing in the Arab world.

    But since that won’t happen, I will make a prediction as bold as stating that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow:

    Whoever is President after Obama is going to get stuck mucking around in Iraq during their term, likely to no more accomplishment than his/her four immediate predecessors.

  • PD Shaw

    He also said on the day that he announced he was running for President that the U.S. has no business in someone else’s civil war. I was there and it was the one line I didn’t like. Prudence may advise against it many times, but we certainly should be open to providing help when we have an interest in who wins.

    Genocide is not a very useful word, it either refers to a very specific event unlikely ever to happen again, or about any type of tribal warfare that is as old as man and will continue until world peace.

  • PD Shaw

    @Ben, air power can destroy those tanks ISIS is sporting. We paid good money for those tanks and the taxpayor deserves to see them blown up.

  • ...

    LOL at PD’s 12:11 comment!

    Unfortunately, that’s the best rationale I’ve seen for intervention….

  • jan

    “Just to make my own views clear I think that President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was an error, the treaty he negotiated with the Maliki government was an error, and President Obama’s adherence to that agreement was an error. “

    The rearview mirror assessment of invading Iraq is seen as an error by most people. The initial SOFA agreement forged between Bush and Maliki (at the insistence of a Democratic Congress), though, was footnoted in ongoing cautionary language by Obama’s predecessor, encouraging the hard-won peace be maintained by keeping a stabilizing military contingency in place. Furthermore, Bush’s ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Cocker, was a hand’s-on, homeostatic linkage between the Bush administration and Miliki. He, as well as his president, personally availed themselves in maintaining a steady hand of oversight, assuring guidance to what was considered an evolving but fledging government successfully leaning towards diverse representation, when Bush left office.

    All of that went asunder under the Obama administration, who simply let the Iraqi regime flounder, going back to it’s more sectarian ways of governance, by overtly neglecting the fragile relationship that had been cultivated under the former administration. The goal promoted, from 2009 onward, was simply to “get out” of the country, rather than to solidify what had been achieved there — ignoring rather than heeding the former president’s admonitions. Consequently, little was done by Obama/Biden to renegotiate the terms of the original SOFA. Instead it was left to stand, providing a convenient excuse to reject any and all military advice, on the grounds of no immunity being able to be secured, to leave first 20,000 troops in place, later reduced to 10,000.

    It was this fulfillment of Obama’s desire to have all troops leave the Iraqi theater that also encouraged the base instincts of Miliki to revert back to a more sectarian, divisive government power. In conjunction with this lack of vigilance in the Iraqi policy, under Obama, you also have Syrian problems growing out of hand, along with the rise of an even more formidable terror group, ISIS. Similar to Iraq, a blind eye was turned as our intelligence observed ISIS’s strength enlarging and spilling over the borders into Northern Iraq. Nothing was done to curtail or discourage it. And, Obama’s general stance of reacting with too little, too late continues on to where we are today — carnage and chaos everywhere.

  • Andy

    “I question the efficacy of air power at all. ”

    Where have you been the last 15 years? Air power routed the Taliban in weeks in 2001, breaking a military stalemate that had existed for years. Air power is what kept the Taliban from massing to conduct large scale attacks against US forces since then. In Libya, the addition of air power is what turned the tide and brought the so-called rebels from the edge of defeat to victory over Qaddafi’s forces. In Iraq in 2003, air power destroyed Iraq’s two best divisions before they ever saw a US soldier and prevented the movement of the rest.

    Now, air power cannot stand on its own except in very limited circumstances, something that is true for the sea and land domains as well. They are all interdependent and the whole is much more than the sum of the parts.

  • jan

    I think there will be increasing pressure for U.S. ground intervention, particularly as representatives of those countries most publicly wringing their hands are virtually certain to not take any significant action beyond castigating the President for supposed failure of leadership.

    Obama’s lack of leadership is obvious to most except his most ardent supporters and acolytes. However, the ability for us to incisively intervene, without too much backsliding, is dubious. Our military infrastructure in Iraq has been abandoned. Our own forces elsewhere are being drawn down and given pink slips. While the world is going wild, Obama is pulling up military stakes and instead making campaign-like rounds ranting to college kids about all the political hate going on between the two parties. Talk about prioritization…..!

  • Andy

    “All of that went asunder under the Obama administration, who simply let the Iraqi regime flounder, going back to it’s more sectarian ways of governance, by overtly neglecting the fragile relationship that had been cultivated under the former administration.”

    That is a paternalistic and incorrect view. The Iraqi regime was something we couldn’t, and can’t, fix. Maliki, as should be obvious at this point, was never interested in the governance structure and balance of power we built. He, also obviously, bit off more than he could chew and couldn’t foresee the rise and the power of an ISIS/Sunni alliance along with much of Saddam’s old officer corp.

    Events in Iraq and the World don’t hinge on The “Leadership” of US Presidents.

  • CStanley

    Re: PD @11:44
    I thought the same about the selective decision to intervene. Christians have been getting slaughtered there for weeks.

    In the current situation it seems there are two differences- the plight of the Yazidis is especially dramatic due to their geographic isolation, and that the members of their sect are dwindling (this latter point seems to strike a chord in the same way as does a species facing extinction.) I don’t see any rational reason that this should trigger a greater responsibility on our part though.

  • jan

    The Iraqi regime was something we couldn’t, and can’t, fix.

    It was not a matter of “fixing,” Andy, but maintaining stability in the region while the country “hopefully” matured under a more diverse form of goverment. There were understood problems with Maliki, though, from the beginning. However, he was the man chosen to lead, and it was tasked to someone like a Bush or Obama to make the best of what we had to work with. I think Bush at least attempted to do that, while Obama kissed it off.

  • PD Shaw

    @CStanley, arguably a small group can better be protected by moving them to safety. But if dispersed into the West, the sect will lose its identity, or worse, they will retain their ways:

    “And it is this sect’s adherents who are becoming better known recently for their part in the nightmarish phenomenon of honor killings in Germany. Already in 2003, the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, wrote: ‘More and more often, police must protect young women from the Yasidi faith community from their own relatives – and help them flee.'”

    A New Sect of Honor Killing Ethusiasts

  • Andy

    “maintaining stability in the region while the country “hopefully” matured under a more diverse form of goverment. ”

    That is “fixing” Iraq and hope is not a strategy. The existing divisions in Iraq have existed for centuries – how long do you think we should wait while we hope for a better government? Will the US public support that timetable with its blood and treasure? What about the Iraqi’s, how interested are they in an enduring US presence?

    “I think Bush at least attempted to do that, while Obama kissed it off.”

    It was Bush’s war, naturally he wouldn’t want to abandon it. Yet he still signed the deal for our withdrawal.

  • Ben Johannson

    Where have you been the last 15 years? Air power routed the Taliban in weeks in 2001, breaking a military stalemate that had existed for years. .

    It sounds nice on an Air Force recruiting poster but I don’t think attributing failure of the Taliban to warplanes is accurate.

    Air power is what kept the Taliban from massing to conduct large scale attacks against US forces since then.

    It doesn’t appear they needed to conduct conventional operations as we’ve been losing to irregular ones for ten years.

    In Libya, the addition of air power is what turned the tide and brought the so-called rebels from the edge of defeat to victory over Qaddafi’s forces.

    Again it sounds good but I have absolutely no evidence this isn’t just one more tall tale. By what metric is it determined what “turned a tide”?

    n Iraq in 2003, air power destroyed Iraq’s two best divisions before they ever saw a US soldier and prevented the movement of the rest.

    I thought I had made clear that air power would be useleless in the context of destroying the Islamic State as it is concentrated in cities. Air operations can hamper their freedom of movement but will not be useful for much more. This isn’t the Iraqi army we’re dealing with and despite the rather triumphal faith in American firepower, it hasn’t done much for us. Nor is it a good idea to assume IS is stupid: they’ve had eight years to observe and adapt to our capabilities and I’ll bet they’re faster at it than we are.

  • TastyBits

    @jan

    I notice that you are very selective when tossing history down the memory hole. We are just supposed to pretend that there was a distortion in time, and the Bush presidency never happened. You do seem to look in the rearview mirror about the Democrat’s racist past.

    Your problem with President Obama is that he did not establish permanent bases in Iraq. You excuse President Bush because he was a nice guy and he tried hard. Apparently, these are the same reasons you voted for Mitt Romney.

    The only reason for going into Iraq was to establish permanent military bases, and President Bush screwed it up. Just admit it. You will feel better.

    President Obama has a childish and silly foreign policy outlook, and he was never going to establish permanent bases. He is who he is, and he was elected – twice. Get over it. If you want something done, do it, but do not blame the next guy for not doing what you failed to do.

    There is a thing called personal responsibility. This is where you do not foist your failures off onto somebody else. Every chance you get, you want to redeem President Bush and vilify President Obama.

  • steve

    1) It is not clear to me why we need Security COuncil approval if Iraq approves of our intervention.

    2) As Andy noted, Iraq no longer wanted us there. If we wanted permanent bases, the time to get that concession was when they were weak and desperate.

    3) We don’t know how to nation build. This was the likely outcome whenever we left.

    4) Maintaining stability with Maliki in charge means supporting a government that will be permanently unstable. He has not ever planned on having an inclusive govt. I don’t know how you justify spending billions of US dollars and some untold number of US lives to keep the guy in power.

    Steve

  • PD Shaw

    “As Andy noted, Iraq no longer wanted us there.”

    No he didn’t.

  • TastyBits

    @steve

    … If we wanted permanent bases …

    This is not the stated position of the delusional hawks. They want to renegotiate the agreements every 4 years for some indeterminate time period.

    You would think they would want a long term stable relationship, but apparently, that is only applicable in business. In foreign affairs, long term stability is not their goal.

  • ...

    The US wouldn’t be fighting with the goal of keeping Maliki in power, but rather to keep IS out of power or marginalized. The effect and possibly the means would be to keep the current Iraqi government in place, but wouldn’t be the goal.

    Or rather, it shouldn’t.

  • Andy

    “It sounds nice on an Air Force recruiting poster but I don’t think attributing failure of the Taliban to warplanes is accurate.”

    Then you need to read the operational history of the campaign. US air power became the fire support for the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban forces. US air power enabled those forces to dislodge the Taliban and rout them. US airpower destroyed their formations whenever they tried to mass for defense. How do you think the stalemate between the opposing forces was broken?

    “It doesn’t appear they needed to conduct conventional operations as we’ve been losing to irregular ones for ten years.”

    If they’d been able to mount conventional operations we would have lost in months.

    “Again it sounds good but I have absolutely no evidence this isn’t just one more tall tale. By what metric is it determined what “turned a tide”?

    No evidence? Then what do you think stopped Qaddafi’s forces, which were in the process of crushing the rebels, rolled them back and defeated them? Again, you need to read the operational history of the campaign.

    “I thought I had made clear that air power would be useleless in the context of destroying the Islamic State as it is concentrated in cities.”

    If ISIS is concentrated in cities then how are they capturing all this new territory? But yes, air power alone cannot destroy ISIS whether it is operating in cities or not (who suggested otherwise?), but it is far from “useless.”

  • Andy

    ““As Andy noted, Iraq no longer wanted us there.”

    No he didn’t.”

    It depends. Pretty much everyone wanted us “out” in the context of an occupation force. Most wanted us out in the context of support force conducting bilateral operations with Iraqi Security Forces. Many wanted us out even for a limited training and support role, but a lot of that was dependent on who we were training and supporting.

  • If ISIS is concentrated in cities then how are they capturing all this new territory? But yes, air power alone cannot destroy ISIS whether it is operating in cities or not (who suggested otherwise?), but it is far from “useless.”

    I haven’t thought it out completely but I think there’s a pretty solid argument for not intervening in Iraq by air power alone somewhat alone the following lines.

    We can be pretty confident that ISIS can’t be stopped by air power alone. Assume that there are no conditions under which we or anyone else would commit ground forces.

    Under those circumstances and in the absence of any other plan, bombing ISIS is futile, just kicking the can down the road. That’s not merciful or even responsible—it’s just sadistic. That’s the model we’ve been using with Assad. Hoping that two sides (neither of which we like) will just degrade each other is a horrible plan.

    If we were to bomb while assembling ground forces or working out another plan, that would be a different matter. I think that either of those would require Congressional support, however. For one thing it would clearly no longer be an emergency situation. If you can defer immediate action while preparing some other solution, that’s not an emergency any more. I find urging the president to go it alone in matters of life and death imprudent to say the least.

  • Zachriel

    Andy: US airpower destroyed their formations whenever they tried to mass for defense.

    This is an important point. Air power alone is not sufficient. Enemy forces will simply disperse and dig in. It requires infantry to force the enemy to concentrate their forces to avoid being destroyed in detail. Hammer and anvil.

    The Balkans campaign is a case in point. NATO destroyed huge amounts of infrastructure, but with little effect on the Serbian military. The Serbian forces simply dispersed, dug in, and got drunk. Once NATO allowed the KLA to enter the conflict, the Serbs were forced to concentrate their forces, which were quickly degraded at Mount Pastrik. (The loss of infrastructure was totally unnecessary.)

  • TastyBits

    @Dave Schuler

    I have never thought of things in that way, but I think you are correct. We are preventing the natural outcome, but we are not providing an alternative.

    The original rationalizations have been exposed as narcissism. The original humanitarian disasters have turned into humanitarian catastrophes several orders of magnitude greater than the original problem.

    To them, the ISIS problem is not the result of too much meddling. It is the result of not enough meddling.

  • PD Shaw

    @Andy, Maliki agreed to extend the status forces agreement, but the Administration added the new condition of parliamentary approval, while it kept negotiating with itself about what forces would be left. There was little reason for Maliki to take the responsibility of putting together a voting block for a moving target. Maliki would have had to expend political capitol, Ben Nelson would have to be given a waiver and a job for his cousin, etc.

  • but the Administration added the new condition of parliamentary approval

    That is one of the very bad habits of the Obama Administration, pointed to many times by various interlocutors. Adding new conditions at the last minute is the very definition of negotiating in bad faith.

  • Zachriel

    PD Shaw: the Administration added the new condition of parliamentary approval

    It was a not a new condition. The original status of forces agreement had parliamentary approval, and no one on either side thought that any renewal agreement would be legally binding without parliamentary approval.

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