Published : 2014-06-23 20:34
Updated : 2014-06-23 20:34
Most days an announcement that the U.S. will send up to 300 military advisers to noncombat duty in some far-off land wouldn’t get much media mention or public attention. Small deployments happen with some frequency, and many Americans never get past the headline. But these troops are going to Iraq ― dispatched by a president who has boasted of ending a long war in that nation.
So Thursday’s news from President Barack Obama revived arthritic reflexes:
Dovish isolationists fear that resuming U.S. military involvement will lead to a quagmire in Iraq and a loss of focus on the economy and other pressing business here at home. For them, the less military outreach overseas, the better. They see a misguided White House unable to resist temptations to meddle. By contrast ...
Hawkish interventionists see the deployment as too little too late ― proof that this White House is obsessed with all that it won’t do, such as bombing insurgent marauders, rather than with crafting coherent and lasting objectives in the greater Middle East. They see a flailing White House that invents timid policy on the fly.
No, we won’t hide behind the hoary cliche that the truth lies somewhere between those polar positions. Both sides of this debate are making more of U.S. re-engagement in Iraq than it merits. They’re smugly refighting their old wars as if thrilled to discover that you can indeed go home again. They’re squeezing today’s crises in Iraq and neighboring lands into the inflexible templates they forged long ago; some in both camps remain hostage to their disputes dating back four decades to Vietnam.
The facts driving Obama’s decision are unpleasant for him and the Americans who’ll deploy, but not especially complicated for the rest of us. He began his second term, remember, talking about domestic aspirations. Foreign policy? His administration would continue to reset relations with Russia and, in essence, pivot attention from the stuck-in-time Middle East to the emergent Pacific Rim. To the future.
But nobody asked the Middle East. With each U.S. step toward disengagement there, rampaging forces of repression and mass slaughter rushed to fill the voids.
In Libya, we bombed Moammar Gadhafi’s regime but didn’t stay to help shape a new government. Reasonable minds can disagree on whom to blame, but the country is a shambles; a formal civil war, should it convene, might bring some organization to the chaos. In Syria, where the president declined early on to meaningfully arm moderates trying to topple the Assad regime, the civilian death toll continues to rise. Islamist fighters now have carried that country’s carnage to Iraq.
And Iraq is ripping apart at the seams.
The view from Washington can only flummox the White House: Iran, the Mideast nation most menacing to the U.S., has exploited these disruptions to extend its influence in a crescent that stretches west to the Mediterranean Sea. And although Afghanistan is its own challenge, Americans can’t help but wonder if that nation, too, will deteriorate if and when the U.S. slashes its troop strength as the president has announced.
The most pressing threat to America’s global interests, though, is the one Obama addressed Thursday: Unless someone changes the trajectory of Iraq in particular, the Mideast’s regional messes stand to get messier.
Among the realistic possibilities: As Sunnis and Shiites savage one another, Iraq subdivides into tribal states or simply collapses. A U.S. administration that praised postwar Iraq as relatively stable and democratic cannot let that country disintegrate into the sands: Iran and its allied militant groups throughout the region would profit immeasurably, tightening their grip around Israel and discrediting the Great Satan as a feckless and unreliable friend to the Iraqis.
The deployment of a few hundred troops is a half-measure already criticized by those Americans who want a more emphatic U.S. retort to Sunni-dominated extremists and by those Americans who want no further U.S. engagement with that country’s Shiite-dominated government. If our recent history weren’t so freighted, most among us probably would accept a president’s judgment and hope for the best. But, again, this is Iraq.
Even as Obama announced his intentions Thursday, there was a defensive tone in his responses to reporters’ questions. He isn’t sending troops to fight in Iraq ― and he isn’t admitting that his disengagement strategy hasn’t worked out as he had planned.
Not that presidents get to conveniently schedule the crises that will confront them.
But with this acceptance of the need for a new military mission in Iraq, however minimal its reach, Obama acknowledges the obvious:
Yes, the United States can disengage whenever and wherever it wishes.
What it cannot then do is dictate whether responsible governance or anarchistic slaughter fills the vacuum.