Here’s Everything Wrong with the White House’s War on the Islamic State
The Obama administration’s war plans in Iraq and Syria are illegal, ill-conceived, and destined to fail. Here's what the U.S.—and you—can do instead.
If Barack Obama owes his presidency to one thing, it was the good sense he had back in 2002 to call George W. Bush’s plans to go to war in Iraq what they were: “dumb.” (The war was many other things too—illegal, cynical, not to mention disastrous—but “dumb” was pretty good for a guy running for Senate back when both parties had largely lined up behind the war.)
Since then, Obama’s had his ups and downs with the antiwar voters who delivered his 2008 nomination and subsequent election. But throughout the arguments over drones, Afghanistan, Libya, and NSA spying—among other issues—Obama could always come back to these voters and say: Hey, at least I ended the war in Iraq. What do you think the Republicans would have done?
But now, with scarcely a whisper of serious debate, Obama has become the fourth consecutive U.S. president to launch a war in Iraq—and in fact has outdone his predecessors by spreading the war to Syria as well, launching strikes not only on fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) but also on the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and al-Khorasan.
This was no minor escalation. According to the Washington Post, the United States and its Arab allies dropped more explosives on Syria in their first engagement there than U.S. forces had dropped over all of Iraq in the preceding month. It was the largest single U.S. military operation since NATO’s intervention in Libya was launched back in 2011.
War planners are predicting that the latest conflict could rage for three years or longer, meaning Obama will bequeath to his successor a quagmire much like the one he inherited—the one he’d so distinguished himself by opposing and subsequently ending. That’ll make five U.S. presidents at war in Iraq and beyond in a row.
Polls show some significant public support for air strikes against IS, albeit alongside ample wariness about getting dragged in too far. Support for action against IS is easy enough to understand: Many fair-minded people otherwise weary of war in the Middle East are appalled by the brutality of IS and feel compelled to “do something” to stop them.
And we should do something. But not this.
We’ll come to regret this war, potentially long before it’s had three years to run its course. Here’s why.
This war is illegal.
So, first thing’s first: This war is unmistakably illegal.
Under international law—at least as defined by the UN Charter, to which the United States is a founding signatory—one country can only legally launch attacks inside another under one of three conditions: if the intervention is authorized by the UN Security Council; if it’s a cut-and-dry case of self-defense; or if assistance is requested by the other country’s government.
It’s true that in Iraq at least, the government requested U.S. assistance in stemming the spread of IS—an intervention promoted in Washington as part of an effort to prevent the genocide of Iraqi religious minorities like the Yazidis (remember them?). Yet the United States has continued launching strikes on IS positions in Iraq long after the crisis on Mt. Sinjar was putatively resolved.
But in Syria, not a single one of these conditions applies.
In a letter to the United Nations explaining its strikes on Syria, the Obama administration claimed that it had the right to attack IS positions that the Syrian regime was “unable or unwilling” to eradicate itself. IS, the administration argues, has used its strategic depth in Syria—where no U.S. intervention has been formally invited by the still-sovereign Assad regime—to attack Iraq, which has requested U.S. assistance.
Here it almost seems like the U.S. and Iraqi governments are taking a page from IS itself and attempting to erase the Iraqi-Syrian border. It’s true that IS is a big problem on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border, but the government of Iraq simply has no legal authority to direct a third country to attack Syria. (Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which Russia attacks the United States because Syria requested help in warding off foreign intervention in its territory. This won’t happen, but it shows the inane implications of the administration’s rationale.)
Additionally, any claims the White House makes about “self-defense” at this stage are spurious, since U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed that IS presently poses no threat to the U.S. homeland. This makes sense—after all, who has time for international terrorism when you’re also trying to conquer and govern new territory? No need to attack the “far enemy” when your objectives are achievable where you’re already fighting. (Unless, of course, the far enemy suddenly starts bombing you.)
Domestically, congressional authorization (if not a formal declaration of war) is required to launch sustained new military operations. Here the Obama administration is on even weaker ground. It claims that Congress’ 2002 war authorization in Iraq gives it some standing. But again, while the Middle East’s post-World War I borders may be arbitrary and problematic for a host of reasons, IS is currently the only party attempting to seriously argue that Syria and Iraq are not two different countries.
The administration is also leaning on the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized using the military to track down the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. This has been quite liberally interpreted to authorize strikes against “al-Qaeda and its associated forces”—a reading of the law the Obama administration has used to justify drone strikes from Somalia to the Philippines—but even these legal gymnastics don’t seem to cover a group like IS, which split very publicly from al-Qaeda earlier this year.
That may be why the initial strikes targeted not only IS but also the al-Nusra Front and a group called al-Khorasan, which do appear to be linked to al-Qaeda. But while the White House has claimed that Khorasan—a previously unknown organization—was in the “execution phase” of some planned attack against the United States or Europe, the legal rationale for such “pre-emptive” strikes was thoroughly discredited by the last Iraq War. Moreover, U.S. counterterrorism officials have cast doubt on the administration’s claim that Khorasan posed an imminent threat to the United States. (And journalist Glenn Greenwald doesn’t believe the group exists at all.)
So why attack these other groups now? A likely explanation is that the White House is using these al-Qaeda-linked forces as a fig leaf to justify attacking IS—and getting involved in Syria more generally—under the previously passed AUMF. But getting mired down in Syria’s civil war—a war that began more than a decade after 9/11, and for entirely unrelated reasons—is a far, far cry from tracking down the terrorists responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
This plan won’t work.
It should bother you that this war is illegal and unconstitutional. But even if you’re fed up with the legal niceties of the UN Security Council and the U.S. Congress, there’s simply no reason to believe that might is going to make right here.
Obama says the plan is to hammer IS targets from the air while bolstering partners on the ground—including the Iraqi Army, Kurdish fighters in Iraq, and “moderate” Syrian rebel groups—in a bid to roll back the advance of IS throughout Iraq and Syria without putting U.S. “boots on the ground” (never mind those 1,600 troops and advisers that have already been sent to Iraq, along with a likely undisclosed number of special forces).
As my colleague Phyllis Bennis is fond of saying, you can’t bomb extremism out of existence. She’s right.
For one thing, bombs cause civilian casualties, which are inherently radicalizing. “The U.S. bombs do not fall on ‘extremism,’” Bennis has written of the strikes on IS’ capital in Syria. “They are falling on Raqqa, a 2,000 year-old Syrian city with a population of more than a quarter of a million people—men, women, and children who had no say in the takeover of their city by ISIS. The Pentagon is bombing targets like the post office and the governor’s compound, and the likelihood of large number of civilian casualties, as well as devastation of the ancient city, is almost certain.”
A protracted air campaign is likely to cause a raft of unintended consequences. In Yemen and Pakistan, for example—the targets of the vast majority of U.S. drone strikes on alleged al-Qaeda “militants”—civilian populations have grappled with severe trauma and stress from living under the constant hovering drones. Terrorist recruiters have repeatedly sought to exploit this trauma—especially among the thousands of Yemenis and Pakistanis who have lost innocent loved ones. The best that can be said of these years-long campaigns from a national security perspective is that they’re holding actions. Al-Qaeda has certainly not been destroyed in either country, and it’s entirely possible that the drones themselves are providing a continued rationale for the group’s survival. It’s unclear why the Obama administration seems to think it can effect a different outcome in the vastly more complicated theater of Iraq and Syria.
Then there’s the problem of what comes after the bombs. If IS falls back under the weight of U.S. airstrikes, who moves in to secure the territory on the ground?
In Iraq, there are a few possibilities at this stage: the Iraqi Army, one of a number of Shiite paramilitary groups, or, in the north, Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
We saw the limitations of the Iraqi Army most dramatically earlier this summer in Mosul, where, after firing scarcely a shot, some 30,000 Iraqi soldiers turned the city—and millions of dollars worth of U.S.-supplied military equipment—over to just 800 attacking IS soldiers. In the years leading up to its capture of the city, IS had freely operated a lucrative protection racket among Mosul’s private businesses and cut deals with corrupt local leaders and members of Iraq’s security forces. So despite the Iraqi Army’s heavy footprint in Mosul—including a burdensome and much loathed system of traffic checkpoints—IS had been consolidating power there long before formally taking over.
The Iraqi Army turned Mosul over without a fight, but the result is often even worse when it decides to dig in its heels. While thousands of civilians fled Mosul fearing religious persecution by IS, thousands of others fled because they feared indiscriminate reprisal attacks by the Iraqi Army. These fears were well-founded—the Iraqi Army’s fondness for internationally banned barrel bombs was on full display in its failed efforts to retake Fallujah from Islamic militants earlier this year. The fact that so many Iraqis are more afraid of the Iraqi Army than IS says worlds about the political conditions that enabled IS to flourish in the first place.
Shiite militias, many of them backed by Iran and deeply implicated in Iraq’s post-invasion sectarian bloodletting, may prove more willing to fight than their counterparts in the military. Thousands of Shiite volunteers heeded a call by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani over the summer to help the Iraqi government protect Baghdad and Shiite holy places. But unleashing these irregular fighters amid a period of heightened sectarian tensions is a fraught proposition, particularly with IS deliberately baiting them by wantonly murdering Shiites and other non-Sunni Muslims. If these militias launch reprisal attacks against Sunnis—and scattered reports suggest that a few of them have—Iraq could descend back into full-blown sectarian war just when Iraq’s government needs to be courting Sunnis more aggressively than ever. Meanwhile, Shiite militias like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kata’ib Hezbollah, and the Badr Corps—some of which cut their teeth fighting U.S. occupation forces—are happy to fight IS but have refused to cooperate with American forces.
Finally, Kurdish fighters may prove more professional than their Shiite counterparts, but they also have a different set of goals. Kurdish groups have fought IS forces for years in northern Syria, and, with help from U.S. airstrikes, peshmerga fighters in Iraq (and their PKK allies from Turkey) have fiercely resisted IS’ efforts to push into Iraqi Kurdistan. But these fighters are ultimately most concerned about consolidating Kurdish territory—for example, they used the chaos of IS’ initial advance to seize control of the disputed (and oil-rich) Arab-Kurdish city of Kirkuk—and it remains to be seen how willing they’ll prove to risk their lives on behalf of Iraq’s central government, with whom the Kurds have a fraught relationship. Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, has suggested he will push for a referendum on Kurdish independence as soon as it’s practicable, even if he’s working with the new Iraqi government for now.
In Syria, the options are even worse.
Outside IS itself, the most competent and cohesive fighting force in the country is probably the Syrian Army, which fights on behalf of a regime the Obama administration has refused to cooperate with and whose human rights abuses have been well documented. Though the Syrian government never formally consented to the strikes against IS on its territory, its evident pleasure at the development was hard to miss. After all, here was a coalition of Syria’s enemies abroad, scarcely a year removed from threatening to topple the Assad regime itself, now bombing its most formidable enemies at home.
Instead of dealing with the Syrian regime, the White House is betting it can vet, arm, and transform a gaggle of “moderate” Syrian rebels into a suitable counterweight to both Assad and IS. This has been a pipe dream of Washington’s war hawks for years, but it’s so fraught with problems it’s hard to know where to begin.
First, it’s extremely unlikely that the rebel forces considered acceptable by the Obama administration are suitably strong at this point to seriously contest either IS or Assad, much less both of them. The most effective rebel forces for the bulk of this conflict have been radical Islamists hardened by battle against U.S. forces in Iraq or the Russians in Chechnya, and amply funded by governments and private donors from the Gulf (and in IS’ case, a huge network of protection rackets, stolen bank assets, and oil sales).
Despite Congress’ approval of $500 million in new funds to train and arm other Syrian rebels, the CIA—which has been already been conducting a smaller-scale program in Jordan to do just that—is reportedly deeply skeptical about the plausibility of this plan, with one member of Congress reporting that CIA sources had described it as a “fool’s errand.” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, has argued that, given the diversity of rebel groups jockeying for influence in Syria, funneling more arms into the conflict is likely to complicate and prolong it, not help resolve it. And the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole has pointed out that even “moderate” groups forge tactical battlefield alliances with groups like IS and Nusra when the need arises, leading to a virtual certainty that arms supplied by the United States could be traded to or seized by IS. This happened even with the Iraqi Army, so it’s a good bet that it would happen with Syrian rebel groups too (and indeed, some reports suggest it already has.)
If IS falls back, the United States is going to be responsible for the actions of whoever takes its place. And while many of these groups currently seem preferable to IS, we should not be enamored of our choices. In entering an extraordinarily complex conflict that has harvested hundreds of thousands of lives, the Obama administration stands to make hundreds of thousands of new enemies, whichever side it takes. And if anyone in Washington still remembers funding Osama bin Laden’s crusade against the Soviets in Afghanistan, they’ll know that even friends are fickle.
Finally, what if IS doesn’t fall back? What if it hides from U.S. airstrikes, harvests recruits from the families of slain civilians, or appropriates the weapons shipments sent to its putative rivals? Alternately, what if, bolstered by U.S. airpower, the Assad regime emerges triumphant in Syria? The Obama administration has defined both of these outcomes as unacceptable, but the White House has not outlined a contingency plan in either case. It’s an open secret in Washington that many of Obama’s generals are eager to send ground troops. That could lead to a major escalation of a war whose current scope has hardly been debated at all.
In a way, we’re still fighting the blowback from the first U.S. intervention in Afghanistan back in 1979, when the United States launched an ambitious campaign to support anticommunist jihadists in their fight against the Soviets—an effort that helped produce groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban. How long will this new war echo, and through what yet unforeseen corridors?
There are other options.
War, in short, is a terrible option.
But the fact remains that IS is a determined and brutal threat to millions of people on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border (and beyond, if you believe the ambitions expressed in some of its more fanciful maps). And given IS’ origins in al-Qaeda in Iraq—a group born and nourished in the chaotic years following the U.S. invasion—the United States bears no small share of responsibility for the current state of affairs. That means Washington should shoulder some of the responsibility for fixing it.
There’s plenty that the United States can do to weaken IS on the more technocratic front. To start, it can freeze the bank accounts of IS’ funders, negotiate partnerships with villages where oil pipelines run to cut IS’ oil revenues, and work with partners in Europe and Turkey to stem the flow of Western fighters into the conflict. The U.S. should also dramatically increase its support for the United Nations’ badly underfunded humanitarian assistance programs in Syria, and send support to neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey that have absorbed millions of refugees.
More fundamentally, the White House must recognize that IS flourishes not simply because of its resources—and much less on account of its ideological appeal—but because of political breakdown on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
In Syria, a grinding civil war has been exacerbated by fits of sectarian bloodletting and the absence of competent administration in rebel-held areas. In Iraq, a Shiite government has ruthlessly repressed the country’s minority Sunnis, turning a blind eye to roving death squads, arresting and torturing nonviolent Sunni activists, and discriminating against Sunnis in the public sector (especially in western Iraq, where jobs and patronage promised to the tribes who had previously turned on al-Qaeda, at great risk to themselves, withered on the vine). One wonders if the Obama administration saw the New York Times feature, published on the eve of its expansion of the war into Syria, which reported that six weeks of U.S. airstrikes in Iraq had failed to peel away IS’ support among the Sunni tribes still deeply suspicious of the Iraqi government, despite a recent change of personnel in Baghdad.
The answer, then, is political. But the current campaign of airstrikes and arms peddling threatens to deepen the political crises in Iraq and Syria, not resolve them. Instead, the Obama administration should work to ameliorate political conditions on each side of the border.
In Syria, it should convene rebel groups, the regime, civil society activists, and regional players like Turkey, Iran, Russia, and the Gulf States to restart negotiations for a political solution to the war. If there’s a silver lining to these latest airstrikes, it’s that the administration can use them as leverage to get Assad and the rebels to the table.
In Iraq, it should condition all further assistance on the development of a more inclusive political order that protects the country’s minorities—not just smaller groups threatened by IS like Christians, Turkmen, and Yazidis, but also the country’s millions of Sunnis. The administration could also link its nuclear negotiations with Iran to the political crisis in Iraq—quietly exploring, for example, an agreement to allow Iran to enrich more uranium for peaceful nuclear power generation in exchange for a pledge from Tehran to rein in the Iranian-backed militias most likely to sow sectarian discord in Iraq.
These are tall orders, and they’re unlikely to see quick results even if pursued aggressively. But given the horrendous legacy of U.S. wars in the region—and not to mention America’s failure to destroy even a single terrorist group after over a decade of continuous military mobilization—diplomacy is a much better option than the guaranteed failure we’re currently embarked on.
It’s not too late to change course.
Obama and his military planners have announced that they expect this new war to last for years. But that’s assuming Congress authorizes it.
Support for some kind action is quite broad in Congress, especially among party leaders. But as Frank Rich has observed, this support is about “an inch deep.” Few members are willing to vote on a protracted new war before a contested midterm election. They may take the issue up after the election if the war doesn’t look too disastrous yet, but that gives opponents of the conflict plenty of time to organize against it before a vote is held.
Arguing that some kind of authorization is inevitable, groups like the Congressional Progressive Caucus have focused their efforts on pushing a resolution that restricts the scope of the conflict while still permitting strikes on IS. Others, like Just Foreign Policy, have organized petitions urging a firm “no” vote on any kind of authorization whatsoever.
Personally I favor the latter approach—I don’t think this poorly considered war deserves a congressional vote of confidence, much less domestic legal authorization. If the last time the U.S. was on the edge of the abyss in Syria—when public opinion was much more resolutely opposed to intervention than it is now—is any indication, a vote could potentially be avoided altogether if it looks doomed to fail. Last year, the Obama administration resigned itself to jettisoning its war plans and pursuing a diplomatic track to dispose of Assad’s declared chemical weapons arsenal, illustrating the power of organizing to avert a war even when it enjoys widespread elite support.
It’s not yet too late to educate your friends, neighbors, and lawmakers about the pitfalls of this new war and the availability of alternatives—you can send them this article, or one of many others like it, and find local groups in your community organizing against military intervention.
Maybe you’ll launch the career of the next rising star to recognize a “dumb war” before it’s fashionable.