FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Why the US Military Opposed New Combat Roles in Iraq

The story published in the Washington Post on 13 June shows how the US military service chiefs – who make decisions on war policy in light of their own institutional interests – prefer an inconclusive war with IS and existing constraints on US involvement, to one with even the most US limited combat role.

The resistance of top US military officials to deepening US military involvement in the war against ISIS came in the wake of a major policy debate within the Obama administration following the collapse of Iraqi military resistance in Ramadi.

In that debate, senior State Department officials reportedly supported the option of putting US advisers into Iraqi combat units to direct airstrikes on IS positions and sending US Apache attack helicopters into urban combat situations. But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, joined top military commanders in opposing that option, the Post story recounted. Dempsey was said to have concluded that the potential gains from such an escalation were not worth the costs in terms of possible US combat losses.

The result of that internal debate was that Obama sent 450 more advisers to Iraq, but only to bases removed from the IS combat zone.

United against combat role

Although President Barack Obama was reported to be keeping future options open, the constraints on the US military effort appear to reflect an alignment between the White House and the US military establishment against a US ground combat role in the battle against ISIS.

Obama’s concern to prevent the war against ISIS from involving US ground combat troops was clear from the outset. The White House appeared to be guarding against pressure for a combat role by suggesting that Islamic State is a “deeply-rooted organisation” and thus could not be defeated through US military action.

And even after domestic political pressures for a major military action developed with the IS beheading of two Americans, Obama sought to avoid calling the US airstrikes against IS “war,” choosing instead to call them a “counter-terrorism strategy”.

Like many other observers, when the US began its bombing campaign against Islamic State targets last August, I was certain that the bombing wouldn’t have any decisive effect on the IS forces, and feared that the logic of escalation that had operated in the failed wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan would also apply to the war against IS.

But the US military does not view every war in the same way. The military’s position in regard to a given proposal for war is based on a set of calculations that may be crude but do follow a certain logic. Military leaders are neither disinterested servants of the commander in chief, as portrayed in the official mythology, nor agents of corporate business seeking control over the world’s resources, as the left has traditionally viewed them.

How military views war

Since the modern US national security state emerged early in the Cold War, the posture of the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps toward different proposals for the use of military force has been shaped primarily by their views of the anticipated effect on their primary interests, which are the preservation and advancement of their own institutions.

The interests in question are both material and psychological. They need to ensure that they obtain enough budgetary resources to maintain the health of those institutions, and they need to feel that their roles and missions are still regarded as important.

The differences between how the US military services make decisions about war and how corporations make business decisions are obvious, but they are similar in one fundamental respect: like corporate businessmen deciding whether to invest in a new product line or expand existing operations, the military services chiefs also make calculations about the gains and costs of a new military engagement to their own institutions and to the military as a whole.

The gains and costs in question are mediated by political conditions. The anticipated gains from a proposal for war may include increased defence spending in general or for particular military missions. A less tangible expected gain would be to impress upon public opinion the important role of one of the services.

Taking casualties

The calculation of potential losses in a proposed military engagement is focused on casualties to US troops. But the cost of those casualties depends on the political climate in the United States, which is in turn related to the actual course of the war in question. So the military leadership may view large numbers of casualties as tolerable in an early stage of one war but not tolerable at all in the context of a different war.

The military service chiefs recall how public opposition to the Vietnam War shaped the climate of opinion toward major war for more than 15 years in the 1970s and 1980s. They also remember vividly how public support for both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars eventually evaporated, and they have known that the US public now has little tolerance for the commitment of ground forces in any war. But they believe that they still have enough political support to continue airstrikes against terrorists.

The question the military leaders have asked themselves is whether giving US troops and pilots more dangerous roles in the war against IS in Iraq is likely to generate more political support or have the opposite effect. Their pessimism on that question is based on the knowledge that such an escalation won’t help defeat ISIS. As a senior Pentagon official told the Post: “We have become very sensitive to the idea that we don’t want to risk lives and limbs if there isn’t a high probability of a payoff.”

The air war in Iraq and Syria is evidently expected to continue indefinitely. But the fact that the US is intervening militarily in an openly sectarian conflict without being able to affect the outcome is a fundamental political problem that is bound to come back to haunt the Obama administration and the US military.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

 

More articles by:

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

April 19, 2018
Ramzy Baroud
Media Cover-up: Shielding Israel is a Matter of Policy
Vijay Prashad
Undermining Brazilian Democracy: the Curious Saga of Lula
Steve Fraser
Class Dismissed: Class Conflict in Red State America
John W. Whitehead
Crimes of a Monster: Your Tax Dollars at Work
Kenn Orphan
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Karl Grossman - TJ Coles
Opening Pandora’s Box: Karl Grossman on Trump and the Weaponization of Space
Colin Todhunter
Behind Theresa May’s ‘Humanitarian Hysterics’: The Ideology of Empire and Conquest
Jesse Jackson
Syrian Strikes is One More step Toward a Lawless Presidency
Michael Welton
Confronting Militarism is Early Twentieth Century Canada: the Woman’s International League for Peace and Freedom
Alycee Lane
On David S. Buckel and Setting Ourselves on Fire
Jennifer Matsui
Our Overlords Reveal Their Top ‘To Do’s: Are YOU Next On Their Kill List?
George Ochenski
Jive Talkin’: On the Campaign Trail With Montana Republicans
Kary Love
Is It Time for A Nice, “Little” Nuclear War?
April 18, 2018
Alan Nasser
Could Student Loans Lead to Debt Prison? The Handwriting on the Wall
Susan Roberts
Uses for the Poor
Alvaro Huerta
I Am Not Your “Wetback”
Jonah Raskin
Napa County, California: the Clash of Oligarchy & Democracy
Robert Hunziker
America’s Dystopian Future
Geoffrey McDonald
“America First!” as Economic War
Jonathan Cook
Robert Fisk’s Douma Report Rips Away Excuses for Air Strike on Syria
Jeff Berg
WW III This Ain’t
Binoy Kampmark
Macron’s Syria Game
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia’s Top Cop Defends Indefensible Prejudice in Starbucks Arrest Incident
Katie Fite
Chaos in Urban Canyons – Air Force Efforts to Carve a Civilian Population War Game Range across Southern Idaho
Robby Sherwin
Facebook: This Is Where I Leave You
April 17, 2018
Paul Street
Eight Takeaways on Boss Tweet’s Latest Syrian Missile Spasm
Robert Fisk
The Search for the Truth in Douma
Eric Mann
The Historic 1968 Struggle Against Columbia University
Roy Eidelson
The 1%’s Mind Games: Psychology Gone Bad
John Steppling
The Sleep of Civilization
Patrick Cockburn
Syria Bombing Reveals Weakness of Theresa May
Dave Lindorff
No Indication in the US That the Country is at War Again
W. T. Whitney
Colombia and Cuba:  a Tale of Two Countries
Dean Baker
Why Isn’t the Median Wage for Black Workers Rising?
Linn Washington Jr.
Philadelphia’s Top Cop Defends Indefensible Prejudice in Starbucks Arrest Incident
C. L. Cook
Man in the Glass
Kary Love
“The Mob Boss Orders a Hit and a Pardon”
Lawrence Wittner
Which Nations Are the Happiest―and Why
Dr. Hakim
Where on Earth is the Just Economy that Works for All, Including Afghan Children?
April 16, 2018
Dave Lindorff
President Trump’s War Crime is Worse than the One He Accuses Assad of
Ron Jacobs
War is Just F**kin’ Wrong
John Laforge
Nuclear Keeps on Polluting, Long After Shutdown
Norman Solomon
Missile Attack on Syria Is a Salute to “Russiagate” Enthusiasts, Whether They Like It or Not
Uri Avnery
Eyeless in Gaza   
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Then, Syria Now
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail