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Eight Hard-Headed Questions About The Third Iraq War


They say the junior officers in one war are the senior officers in the next. Colin Powell served two tours in Vietnam. The first was 1962 to 1963, cut short when his foot met the business end of a punji stick. The second time was in 1968. By then, he was in a position to see all the Army sausage being made. He could take the long view on what went right and what went wrong, and over the subsequent decades in Washington developed ideas about when and how the United States should go to war.

By the time first Iraq War came around, these ideas had solidified into what became known as the Powell Doctrine. It is a series of questions that must be answered in the affirmative before the United States engages in military action. They are a standard, the bare minimum necessary for the United States to go to war and conclude it sensibly. These questions are a rational examination of the situation and what every president and congressman should ask themselves before committing the United States to war.

A list of these questions is available on the Wikipedia. I will examine each as it applies to the military campaign now underway by the United States against the Islamic State (ISIS).

1. Is a vital national security interest threatened?

This is the central question. Is Iraq a vital national security interest? ISIS members are the bad guys, but it seems to be taken for granted that it’s in our vital national security interest to bomb them and protect Iraq.

ISIS is far more likely to threaten the vital interests of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey than the United States.

If we were talking about the fall of Iraq, as ISIS capturing Iraq’s land and resources, then I could see how that could threaten the vital interests of the United States, in time. But, frankly, a few months ago ISIS was an army of technicals, guys in pickups with guns on the back. Now they’ve captured some better gear, they’ve captured some money, but they’re a long way off from being able to threaten the United States. ISIS is far more likely to threaten the vital interests of Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey than the United States.

It is extremely unlikely ISIS could possibly capture all of Iraq. The reason for ISIS’s success so far is that they’ve been welcomed in Sunni areas as an alternative to the Shiite government in Baghdad. Their success has to do with Shiite Iraqi soldiers dropping their guns and running rather than fighting to defend Sunnis.

Even absent American intervention, it is unlikely ISIS would take Baghdad, and extremely unlikely it would take all of Iraq.

So far, ISIS has captured Sunni-controlled areas and a few Kurdish areas. When driving on Baghdad, they stopped short and didn’t take the city. ISIS may be comprised of barbarians and thugs, but they’re savvy enough to understand they couldn’t take and hold a Shiite city of four million people. Even absent American intervention, it is unlikely ISIS would take Baghdad, and extremely unlikely it would take all of Iraq.

So does that mean ISIS threatens the vital national security interests of the United States? ISIS has proven itself willing to use extreme violence (they’re even too violent for Al Queda). They’re willing to massacre civilians. They’re willing to massacre prisoners. They’re willing to behead journalists. But hyperventilated claims of ISIS as an existential threat to the United States are nonsense. ISIS is unlikely to touch us here. They can’t capture Baghdad. They’re certainly not an existential threat to the United States.

2. Do we have a clear, attainable objective?

Part of the question is: What is our objective? To drive back ISIS? Is that all? Or would it be to smash ISIS completely?

Smashing ISIS won’t be simple. If they choose to retreat into urban areas and fight things out, it could take substantial time and forces to root them out. And bombing ISIS doesn’t change the conditions on the ground that allowed them to exist.

3. Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?

We, as a nation, haven’t really talked about the risks and costs. Nobody has laid out a serious plan. In fact, President Obama doesn’t even seem to have a plan (or the good sense to not say that out loud). This question is a major issue in military actions. The question needs to be asked and answered with major skepticism and an eye towards the pessimistic.

There’s been no national conversation about another war in Iraq.

All those quotes from the hawks in 2002 who said we’d be out of Iraq in six months turned out to be terribly, terribly wrong. Wars rarely end up where the people who favor the war from the beginning intended. War is massive undertaking with too many moving parts to calculate things well. War is chaos.

Part of the problem with this intervention is that there’s been no national conversation about this. There hasn’t been a serious debate in Congress or (heaven forfend) an actual congressional vote on the subject.

The Obama administration claims that Public Law No: 107-243, the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002, the law passed twelve years ago that empowered President Bush to remove Saddam Hussein from power, gives President Obama free reign to fight ISIS. Congress, too terrified to actually take a stand on something in an election year, is abdicating its responsibility to check the president on this.

The assumption that the president, Congress, and the hawks asking for this war seem to be working from is that this is a cost-free exercise—there’s no risk and it’s all benefit. That is unrealistic.

4. Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?

This question is well suited for situations like the first Iraq War, where a negotiated solution was at least possible. In the case of ISIS, it appears not to be the case. However, would it be possible to reach a negotiated solution with ISIS? Has the Iraqi government tried? It seems probable, considering its rhetoric, that ISIS is uninterested.

The other question that I’d like to ask is: Have we gotten other nations involved? If ISIS were to push further into Iraq, it could threaten Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey. Saudi Arabia and Turkey both have well-equipped, modern air forces. Saudi Arabia has a fleet of F-15 Strike Eagles. Iran could do its part, too. Does the United States need to take a lead role in this? We’ve armed everyone to the teeth—do we need to be their air force, too?

5. Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

Well, that depends entirely on the plan (which, again, we seem not to have). If we’re just dropping bombs on ISIS artillery positions, then that role might remain limited, like our recent involvement in Libya. However, Libya didn’t turn out that well. To do things right may require, despite President Obama’s protestations to the contrary, tens of thousands of troops. And that’s in just a limited role.

But the prevailing wisdom seems to be that if we bomb ISIS only in Iraq, they’ll just retreat to Syria, so we’ll need to also bomb Syria. (This sounds a lot like why we bombed Cambodia.)

Considering how President Obama keeps committing us to a larger and larger role in this third Iraq War, those just may be the tip of the iceberg. And considering that the president doesn’t seem to know or understand what he’s committing us to (and if he does, he’s certainly not telling us), an exit strategy doesn’t seem to be on the table.

6. Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?

The answer to this question seems to be no. As I write this, the United States seems to be gearing up to also drop bombs on Syria. At that point, we would be bombing in support of the same Syrian regime that we wanted to bomb a year ago for crossing some red line. That same Syrian regime warned the United States that if we bomb ISIS without their permission, it could be seen as an act of aggression.

Frankly, nothing seems to be fully considered. This whole thing seems to be half thought out.

7. Is the action supported by the American people?

Of all the questions in this list, this one most smacks of Vietnam. In July 1968, six months before the Tet Offensive, Gallup showed a majority of Americans disapproving of President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the war. Even after Richard Nixon took over, public support for the war never recovered.

Public support for the air war will evaporate when this becomes another ground war.

Recent polling suggests there is bipartisan support for air strikes and strong opposition to ground troops. More broadly, the American people have turned against interventionism.

My concern (if it’s not clear already) is that we cannot limit this to just air strikes, that President Obama (or his successor) will end up bumbling into yet another ground war. I do not see it happening any other way. (That doesn’t mean it won’t, I don’t have a crystal ball.) And the American people have no stomach for another ground war, especially in Iraq. You cannot fight a war—and let’s be clear, that’s what we’re talking about, not some limited bombing campaign—without public support. That public support for the air war will evaporate when this becomes another ground war.

It is possible that, if he chose to do so, President Obama could change this by appealing to the public to support his war. But he is either unwilling or unable to do so.

8. Do we have genuine broad international support?

Of all these questions, this one seems to be the only one that has a yes answer. Support appears to be so broad that it includes Russia and Iran (which is a red flag for me). The United Nations, for its part, seems to be on board against ISIS.

If we apply the Powell doctrine, this list of eight hard-headed questions, which demands an affirmative answer for each and every question, we have an absolute affirmative answer to one question. If we apply the wisdom of the Powell Doctrine to the question of this third Iraq War, it looks like a very bad idea.