So once again the U.S. is bombing Iraq, as it has done under every U.S. president since George H. W. Bush. It’s worth remembering how thrilled U.S. diplomats were in 1984 when the U.S. finally established full diplomatic relations with Baghdad. The State Department’s Arab experts were overjoyed that the U.S. would have relations with, and a modicum of influence over, one of the largest and most powerful Arab states.
Later, George H. W. Bush was made to pay the political price for supporting a so-called “weapons for Saddam” policy, and the role of the Foreign Service Arabists disappeared down the memory hole. The “weapons” turned out to be things like Chevy Blazers and Apple II computers, but the political damage to Bush helped Clinton in 1992.
The 1991 “triumph without victory” was followed by twelve years of occasional bombing in Iraq’s no-fly zones as part of Operations Provide Comfort, Northern Watch, and Southern Watch. Occasionally, more intensive bombing campaigns, such as Clinton’s 1998 Desert Fox, took place. The “humanitarian” bombing continued right up until the 2003 invasion and the overthrow of Saddam.
It will be many years before we can have an accurate assessment of what really went wrong after 2003. I suspect that when we eventually get it, the role of the State Department’s lawyers will be shown to have been critical. But in any case, despite the success of the 2007 “surge” strategy, the American public was convinced by 2008 that the war was a failure and that the U.S. should get out. In 2011, under President Obama, we proceeded to do just that.
So now, three years later, we are back to bombing Iraq for humanitarian purposes. As before, we are trying to help the Kurds survive. This time we are also trying to protect Iraq’s Christian and Yazidi minorities. ISIL, which threatens them with extermination, is just as murderous as Saddam’s Baathists ever were. Now, however, the Islamists can broadcast their atrocities and their threats over social media, making them impossible to ignore.
Yet this so-far-unnamed operation that began Friday and may in fact run off and on for years to come, as did the no-fly-zone ops, has all the characteristics of President Obama’s previous military endeavors. First of all, it’s weak: Fewer than 100 Air Force combat aircraft, including drones, are available in the region. These planes have to backstop operations in Afghanistan and deter Iranian attacks against America’s Gulf-state allies. The Navy adds another 50 or so based on the George H. W. Bush. We’ve come a long way since 1991, when the U.S. alone deployed more than 500 F-15s, F16s, and A-10s against Saddam.
It also seems that until we get permission from our friends in the region to use their air bases, all the combat missions will be flown off aircraft carriers. This ensures that, except for a few drone missions, all air strikes will be flown by formations of two or four aircraft. There is also a problem of available cargo aircraft for humanitarian airdrops or Kurdish resupply, because so many of the Air Force’s C-130 and C-17 planes are being used to fly illegal aliens around the country.
Then there is the obvious lack of presidential engagement. One source said that this operation is similar to Clinton’s Bosnia and Kosovo adventures. Back then, the president failed to give any instructions other than to tell the military to do “something.” A possibly apocryphal story goes that the air commander during the 1998 Kosovo operation told his troops, “We are not being paid to provide an air campaign; we are being paid to provide the appearance of an air campaign.”
The tone of President Obama’s statement on August 7 was filled with resentment against a world that refuses to respect his authority. As usual, the president is making clear what he will not do and why the U.S. military cannot “solve” the problem. This represents the flaws not only of the president’s own approach to foreign policy but also of the technocratic mentality that has, sadly, dominated America’s war-fighting policies since the days of Robert McNamara. A military force can accomplish missions; it cannot solve local political problems, and to expect it to do so is a recipe for disaster.
For eight years under Bill Clinton, the U.S. bombed Iraq on a nearly daily or at least weekly basis. Both Saddam and the Kurds survived. With luck, this new campaign will help the Kurds and their friends and allies, including the Yazidis and Iraqi Christians, to survive, but no one should expect that, under this administration, ISIL will be defeated or even seriously inconvenienced.
— Taylor Dinerman is a New York–based writer and author of the satire Subway Lists and Other Writings from the iPhone Era.