National Security: The Third Iraq War
There are some quotes that remain relevant for the simple truths they convey. One of the more notable quotes was penned by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. Clausewitz, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars, wrote in his treatise concerning strategy titled Vom Kriege (On War) that “war is politics by other means.” American foreign affairs vindicate this.
Coveted national interests are often only pursued when applied first through a political litmus test. Why remain isolationist, despite the Axis powers devouring the free – and non-free – world? Because isolationism was the spirit of the day. Why discontinue support of South Vietnam, despite so much American blood and treasure being spent defending it from northern aggressors? Because securing the victory was no longer popular in Vietnam. It has become almost a cliché; to paraphrase a Bill Clinton campaign slogan, it’s politics, stupid.
But politicizing strategy has its consequences; when Japan sensed weakness, it sunk half of the Pacific fleet. When South Vietnam lost its needed support for the U.S., it soon fell to the communist north. Seldom does a positive outcome arise from this polarization. Once again, we are repeating this phenomenon. This time, the story takes place in the Persian Gulf.
The Iraq war ended with the insurgency destroyed after the surge; the task at hand was to secure the peace. But we return to the theme of politics. The war was unpopular, and President Obama campaigned on pulling troops out of the country. That is when Iraq fell back into the Hobbesian state of nature.
Iraq has a unique place in the Arab world; in a demographic region that is dominated by Sunni Muslims, Iraq is predominately Shia, like its neighbor Iran. Despite this, the Sunni minority were at the reins of power, with Sandam Hussein at the helm. When the dictatorship fell after the American invasion, and a democracy installed, the Shia naturally ascended to power, if not by sheer force of numbers. For the time being, the Iraqi government was held in check; with the United States and its allies fighting a vicious insurgency, the Iraqi government couldn’t afford to promote tribalism.
And then the U.S. pulled out, and the history that has plagued the region resumed. The Iraqi Prime Minister Malaki proceeded with pursuing a series of tribalistic policies that ultimately made the Sunni minority feel isolated. All this is happening with the backdrop of cleaning up the insurgency that was all but destroyed by American forces. As America wiped its hands from the region, the Arab Spring exploded, and Syria fell into utter chaos.
Now two counties with both unpopular government boarded each other, and a massive power vacuum presented itself. In hindsight, what happened was inevitable. The Islamic State rose from former anti-American fighters in the Iraq war. Seeking to capitalize on the polarization and religious conflict in Iraq, ISIS claimed to protect Sunnis and began its war against the Iraqi government and all who sided against them. They did so successfully.
The Islamic State spread like a disease across the lands of the ancient Fertile Crescent; town after town was taken, and with each ISIS victory, atrocity after atrocity was reported. Many of the settlements being half hostage to ISIS have already been featured in American news medium ten years before. Towns like Ramadi and Fallujah, which many American servicemen fought and died in relentless urban warfare, now had the black flag of the Islamic State flying over their streets and buildings. At its height, the caliphate claimed by the Islamic State was roughly the size of Great Britain.
The growing shadow of ISIS receive little resistance from Western governments. Despite the propaganda and atrocities being reported daily, and despite outrage by Western citizens, nothing was done until the Islamic State stood neared the gates of Baghdad. Eventually, in the classic American diplomatic fashion, the U.S. decided to commence offensive operations against ISIS when the problem was at its most severe.
The third Gulf War has begun. The American-lead war in the Persian Gulf was against the Saddam Hussein and the Baathists. The second war in the Persian Gulf saw the United States fight the Baathists, now recast as Al-Qaeda. And now, the third Gulf War will see a U.S. lead coalition fight Al-Qaida recast as the Islamic State. This war would be fought differently though. The first war saw an American-led coalition obliterate Iraqi conventional forces in one of great strategic masterpieces of military history. The second war saw American and allied forces fight a protracted ground war against insurgents.
Both the media painfully covered wars. This new war would see American ground forces sneak back into Iraq, though this time without media fanfare. American ground fighting would be done either out of the reach of reporting, or it would be fought in an advisory role. Most of the combat would be done via airpower, with American aviators reigning down ordnance to annihilate the physical presence of ISIS. America is a war again in Iraq, and it is almost as if no one knew. The observation and hysteria of the Gulf wars fought by the Bush presidencies did not spread to the war started by Obama and continued by Trump.
Though it has been slow, there are now signs that the air campaign is taking its toll on ISIS. When the war started, the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria was about to fall – and its inhabitants were going to undoubtedly fall victim to the maliciousness of the Islamic State – all done while Turkish military forces watched from a distance. Now, the town of Kobani has been spared. At the beginning of the conflict, Baghdad seemed to be next in the dominos of settlements falling to ISIS. The Iraqi capital avoided the siege. At the beginning, Mosel was under ISIS control. As of this writing, the Iraqi government is fighting to liberate the city – though costs have been high.
In the chaos following the American pullout and the rise of ISIS, Iran saw an opportunity and took it. Iran and Iraq used to be archenemies; which culminated with the two fighting each other in the bloodiest war of the post-WWII world. With American forces gone, and the Iraqi government barely able to stay alive, Iran began expanding its power in the region to the point to where many consider Baghdad to just be an Iranian proxy. Iran played its part in the war against the Islamic state; the Islamic Republic funded Shia militias to assist Iraqi forces clear their nation of ISIS. The connection to Iran was strong enough to provoke the United States to refuse to assist Iraqi security forces where the Iranian-backed Shia militias are operating.
With ISIS in retreat in the region, and Iran flexing its strategic muscles, an obvious question arises – what will happen to Iraq once ISIS is gone? The future is cloudy. Tensions between Arab states like Saudi Arabia are already high, with a recent decision between many Arab states to cut off ties with Qatar because it is too close to Iran. The Arab states and the Iranians have already been fighting a proxy war in Yemen, and considering this is the Middle East, any number of issues could spark a crisis, such as how the Saudi execution of a Shia cleric that ultimately lead to the two nations severing ties. Will Iraq be the next buffer state in a regional power struggle? We may soon find out.
It is almost impossible to determine what American policy in the region will be, and how involved the United States will remain in Iraq following the expulsion of ISIS. Should the U.S. just pull out, as it did after the Iraq war, the threat of a conventional struggle and all it entails (E.g. nuclear proliferation) may very well occur. This equation doesn’t even factor in what role Russia will play in the region.
The lessons of the Iraq war, and every other American war and diplomatic crisis, should be seared into the minds of policy makers and the voting public. Unfortunately, the chances of this happening remain as unlikely now as they have been in the past. The future of Iraq, and American involvement in our democratic upbringing of that nation is uncertain. What is certain is this: whatever solution that arises to the problems that will inevitably present itself in the future, the solution will be postponed, and the challenge will be agitated, by the political climate at the time.