I don’t mean to show excessive or anxious concern about detail, but what is our goal in Iraq? And why aren’t we talking about what that specific goal is?
Consider a few random items that came across the transom this week.
1) From Jeffrey Goldberg’s introduction of his interview with Hillary Clinton:
At one point, I mentioned the slogan President Obama recently coined to describe his foreign-policy doctrine: “Don’t do stupid shit” (an expression often rendered as “Don’t do stupid stuff” in less-than-private encounters). This is what Clinton said about Obama’s slogan: “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.”
2) Former Obama advisor David Axelrod’s response:
Just to clarify: "Don't do stupid stuff" means stuff like occupying Iraq in the first place, which was a tragically bad decision.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) August 12, 2014
3) From a growing petition headlined, “A Plea on Behalf of Victims of ISIS/ISIL Barbarism in Iraq”:
Therefore we call upon the United States and the international community to do everything necessary to empower local forces fighting ISIS/ISIL in Iraq to protect their people. No options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table. We further believe that the United States’ goal must be more comprehensive than simply clamping a short-term lid on the boiling violence that is threatening so many innocents in ISIS/ISIL’s path. Nothing short of the destruction of ISIS/ISIL as a fighting force will provide long-term protection of victims.
Now, I actually agree with parts of each of these items. It’s difficult to disagree with Clinton that Obama’s foreign policy doctrine is insufficient. It’s cartoonishly insufficient. It’s difficult to disagree with Axelrod that occupying Iraq was a bad decision (even if almost everyone in the Obama administration and the New York Times enthusiastically supported it when the call to do so was made). Or at least, it’s not difficult for me to disagree with that since it’s always been my position. And it’s difficult to turn away from the plight of Christians and other religious minorities being slaughtered by ISIS/ISIL or that the goal of the United States should be more thought-through than the current short-term strategies indicate.
But do you notice that no one in the Clinton-Obama micturation match is talking about what, specifically, the object of our latest iteration of military action/war in Iraq should be? And are we sure, with the petition-signers, that our foreign policy should be mostly about genocide prevention of others? How far does that go? People are hurting all over the world right now. How do we pick, in a world of limited resources, which few we help? And what’s the long-term strategy of making that our foreign policy?
I wouldn’t presume to advise how to achieve the end we’re aiming for, but I’m beyond concerned by the lack of discussion — much less popular consensus and much, much less executive leadership — concerning that goal. To be completely honest, I’m worried that no one thinks it’s necessary to have a specific goal that relates to the peace of the American people.
George S. Patton had that funny line about how “The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.” But I think Conan the Barbarian was closer to the philosophy of war when he told Mongol General what was best in life:
Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.
When it comes to Iraq, the goals of our military action seem to have been unclear for some time now. Consider this tweet from CNN’s Wolf Blitzer:
President George H. W. Bush ordered air strikes in #Iraq in 1991; Bill Clinton in 1998; George W. Bush in 2003; now Barack Obama.
— Wolf Blitzer (@wolfblitzer) August 11, 2014
But let’s take it back one step. The reason why the United States should be involved in military action is so that Americans may live a quiet and peaceable life, no? In our case that means it is to secure our system of self-government from the tyrannies around every corner. We may have forgotten this basic principle of military action after decades of half-hearted military engagement throughout the world, but war is supposed to be a way of achieving peace, not more war.
In his essay, “Tools of Statecraft: Diplomacy and War,” Angelo Codevilla says you can’t really talk about the object of a country’s military action without thinking about the peace that country seeks. What is the peace we seek? Shouldn’t we have an answer to that question?
Only from the perspective of the peace you desire is it possible to identify what stands in the way, the people, the institutions, the things the removal of which will give you the peace you want. Only once you have figured that out does it make sense to think of whom to kill and what to destroy, and then, sequentially, to ask “what will it take?” and hence to design military operations.
The answer might be diplomacy, military engagement or all-out-war. But we don’t know what it will take because we’re completely confused about what we seek and the statesmanship required to even maintain a clear understanding of what we seek, much less have a hope of achieving it.