In an interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on August 8, President Obama stressed that the US was only fighting the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) in Iraq as a partner, not as Iraq’s or the Kurds’ air force. Obama claims his officials are reminding everyone, “We will be your partners, but we are not going to do it for you. We’re not sending a bunch of US troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things.” Now, less than three weeks later, the strategic picture has changed, and emphases on “partnerships” have faded while the US military complex advances largely on its own.
US air strikes temporarily stalled the IS advance, but its expanding territorial control (now roughly equal in area size to Jordan) and the beheading of an American reporter led Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to declare IS a threat “beyond anything we’ve seen.” Washington hasincreased the number of US advisers sent to Iraq, and there is even talk of carrying out air strikes in Syria. Drones are already flying overhead.
We have witnessed this sudden turnaround many times before, haven’t we? The pattern is all too familiar. First, the President and other top US leaders soft-pedal talk about a modest direct role in a conflict: no boots on the ground, just a few air strikes to create better odds for our side. Then the characterization of the threat changes, from local to regional and even global, exemplified Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby’s warning on August 26, of the “global aspirations” of ISIS.
What was once called a terrorist group is now an insurgency with grand ambitions that may carry to our doorstep. This change in scope is followed by dropped talk of partnership and political reform in our ally’s capital. Now the threat takes on highest priority. Congress follows the administration’s lead by abandoning its responsibility to authorize war or otherwise challenge the commander-in-chief.
Once the stakes have risen in the minds of decision makers, the US role becomes paramount. After all, if not us, who? The US thus becomes the victim of its unilateralist impulse. When presidents of both parties have decided to intervene abroad—in Korea, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Lebanon, Grenada, Panama and Iraq, for example—they always acted in the name of national security and were quite prepared to go to war without allies. When they accepted offers of help, it was only on the condition of total US control of war making. War “by committee” was unacceptable, as Donald Rumsfeld famously said in relation to the first Gulf War. What the US wants are “coalitions of the willing”—governments willing, that is, to follow US orders.
Now the US is facing the IS largely on its own. The “we” in Obama’s interview with Friedman includes no one else but us—unless, that is, you include Syria, whose dictator has already thrown down the welcome mat at the prospect of the US becoming involved in its civil war and bombing IS soldiers.
Where are US allies in this supposedly monumental battle—not just the Europeans in NATO but the Japanese, the Koreans, and the Australians? If the IS is an “imminent” threat to “international security,” as Chuck Hagel has suggested, why haven’t others clamored to join the battle? Why hasn’t the US brought this global threat to the United Nations?
The US is again playing sheriff without a posse and the consequences are predictable and dire. US bombs will kill a certain number of IS fighters, but how many more recruits will IS gain as a result? How much more likely will an attack on a target in the US become as Washington makes the war on IS its own? How much less likely will a political settlement of Iraq’s internal struggle be?
As the US, the Lone Ranger, focuses its attention and resources on the threat du jour, political change and the development of civil society in Iraq and Syria will remain on hold. Yet those transformations are the keys to demobilizing the IS and neutralizing its grandiose ambitions. Trying to level the playing field unilaterally with bombs and advisers is a sucker’s game and will only make things worse.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly, and blogs at In the Human Interest.