The Corner

Are We Finally Having a Meaningful Debate Over the Rules of Engagement?

This morning the Washington Post reported that there may be meaningful discontent over the Obama administration’s extraordinary rules of engagement restricting our war against ISIS:

President Obama’s order to intensify air attacks in Syria has led to new internal debate over whether to loosen tight restrictions on strikes against Islamic State targets that risk civilian casualties, according to senior administration officials.

That’s the good news. The administration’s near-zero tolerance for civilian casualties has granted ISIS numerous safe havens and freed them to kill and maim far more civilians than our (extremely accurate) raids ever would. The bad news is that Obama is still Obama, and he seems to be standing firm:

But so far, at least, the White House has resisted proposals to change the rules of engagement for the bombing. Each strike, whether against a pre-planned target or one chosen on a “dynamic” basis by patrolling aircraft, is weighed against likely collateral damage and must be individually approved by top officers at the coalition operations center in Baghdad.

“We are trying to develop intelligence to get targets, to leverage opportunities . . . to create strikes that have a strategic effect,” a U.S. military official said. “But we’re going to keep doing those the same way we have done. We will not willy-nilly go after a target because it’s right there, right now.”

And here’s President Obama himself:

Obama has said he makes “no apologies for us wanting to do this appropriately and in a way that is consistent with American values.”

“If the suggestion is that we kill tens or hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians and Iraqis,” he said in an NPR interview broadcast Monday, “that is not who we are, and that would be a strategy that would have an enormous backlash against the United States,” including potentially creating more militants than it eliminates.

I’m sorry, but Obama’s rhetoric — as well as the comment from the unnamed “U.S. military official” — is pathetic. There is a spectrum between the current rules and “willy-nilly,” and they know it. They’ve deliberately chosen perhaps the most extreme set of restrictions in the history of American warfare, and they’re hiding behind a straw man. Please, can we deal with the real world? Even the Washington Post can spot the false choice:

What is at issue, however, is not the difference between no civilian casualties or tens or hundreds of thousands, but drawing a line somewhere in between. While much of the push for increased flexibility has come from the State Department rather than the military, a senior administration official said, “nobody’s advocating for completely loose rules.”

In the real world, excessive American caution leads to extraordinary civilian casualties — at the hands of the terrorists whose lives we’re sparing. I talked about this issue at length in my recent print magazine cover story, but let me cite some additional data to put our choices in perspective.

I served in Iraq during the height of the Surge. My unit — the 2nd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment — was engaged in near-constant combat for a year in Diyala Province, Iraq. Our prime opponent was al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to ISIS. Indeed, AQI had already morphed into the “Islamic Caliphate of Iraq.” Despite encountering countless IED, engaging in multiple firefights, and firing thousands of rounds of artillery, we killed exactly two civilians in one year. At the same time, the terrorists who we were sometimes restricted from attacking (and that was under looser rules than currently govern our forces) killed hundreds of civilians in our area of operations alone. Suicide bombs, IEDs, and mass executions took a fearsome toll.

Our rules of engagement do not save civilian lives. They prolong the conflict and create the conditions for American defeat. Across two administrations, they are the hidden scandal of the War on Terror, and it’s past time for public debate.

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