When will they ever learn?

Congratulations, Mr. Cheney: I hope you’re happy now. You and your cronies did, in fact “remake” the Middle East, and now you’ve left us to deal with the fallout. Having broken Iraq, we are now forced to make common cause with the Butcher of Damascus, who is fighting the same Sunni jihadists we now consider to be the greatest threats to our own national security. As ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant), or “the Islamic State,” as they now prefer to call themselves, march toward Baghdad, we now find ourselves doing Iran’s and Syria’s bidding.

{mosads}President Obama recognizes the lack of good options here, but seems to be ignoring his own best instincts. First he decided to send 300 U.S. military trainers and advisers to provide some backbone to the Iraqi military that we just spent billions training, advising and equipping. Now it’s another 200 troops to secure the airport and U.S. diplomatic facilities. Armed drones, the initial justification for which was to kill senior al Qaeda officials, are now being deployed as a way of evading political and constitutional limitations on the use of force and engagement in hostilities — limitations which, as Rachel Maddow points out, Congress has been derelict in its duty to uphold.

We’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. There are only two ways this can go: more troops and more drone strikes until we’re hopelessly entangled in a civil war, or watching as helicopters evacuate the last holdouts from the embassy rooftop. Or both.

Moises Naim is right: A good dose of humility should be in order for anyone who presumes to have an easy answer. But here are some basic principles that ought to guide our actions:

Sending more troops and staying longer wouldn’t have changed the outcome — and still won’t. As Stephen Walt so cogently explains, “trying to spread liberal ideals at the point of a gun” requires destroying an existing social order, creating a vacuum that is inevitably filled by those seeking to settle old scores. “Kill lists” and “precision” bombings have led only to the expansion, decentralization and strengthening of violent extremist groups around the world. Assuming we’re not willing to wield the same brutal tactics that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used to hold the country together, it’s time to admit that Vice President Biden was right eight years ago when he suggested, in effect, a “soft partition” – for which he was roundly criticized by the foreign policy establishment. The only difference now is that the inevitable endpoint, instead of being decided around a bargaining table, will be written in blood.

Going back in now won’t salvage our credibility. The only conceivable explanation for sending in a small number of troops in an advisory role is to make it appear as if we’re doing something, because it’s too painful for us to stand by and watch. Yes — it is acutely painful to watch, although perhaps not as painful as the last decade of senseless war. But does anyone really believe that this will change the final outcome? President Obama, please take your own words to heart: “Don’t do stupid s—.”

It’s not all about us. The Sunni insurgency has a lot more to do with sectarian rivalries and local grievances than with antipathy towards the United States. Yet the more we try to insert ourselves into the conflict, the more it becomes about us. We would do well to remember that our support for the mujahideen fighting to eject the Soviets from Afghanistan gave rise to both the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Start by “doing no harm.” We have yet to take responsibility for causing at least 125,000 documented civilian deaths from violence following the 2003 invasion of Iraq (and many more, if one includes deaths indirectly attributable to the war). There is one thing we could do (or, as it were, stop doing) at low risk and low cost with the possibility of lasting, positive returns. Instead of encouraging a munitions free-for-all, in which our own weapons and funding end up in the hands of the most dangerous groups, our so-called friends arm our enemies, and our rivals provide the fuel for attacks on innocent civilians, why not call for an arms embargo to the entire region? It wouldn’t end the war quickly, but it might help it burn out sooner.

Ohlbaum is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Project on Prosperity and Development and a principal of Turner4D, a strategic communications firm.

Tags Dick Cheney Iraq Iraq War ISIS Islamic State in Iraq and Syria
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