The U.S. government has set entirely understandable political goals for Iraq, but it has almost certainly chosen the wrong strategy for achieving them. Since the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in June, U.S. President Barack Obama has insisted that Iraq needs an inclusive government capable of winning support among not only the country’s Shia majority but also its Sunni minority. Obama also declared that the formation of such a government must precede any attempt to defeat ISIS. Washington’s current military intervention reflects that analysis: until Baghdad agrees to Washington’s political vision, the United States has declared that it will commit only to conducting limited air strikes -- that is to say, air strikes that are sufficient to halt the extremists’ progress but not to defeat them.
Washington’s strategy is backward. Any diplomatic leverage in Iraq would come from demonstrating that it can defeat ISIS. In other words, if the United States wants to influence the political situation in Iraq, it must first make itself an indispensable military player there.
If there is a consistent pattern in U.S. policy toward Iraq over the past several decades, it is that Washington can achieve significant diplomatic gains only if it is prepared to make significant military investments. In 1991, during the Gulf War, U.S. President George H. W. Bush deployed a large amount of troops to the region but avoided making a long-term military commitment. Rather than organize the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, he backed down. The result was that Hussein remained in power; in the years ahead, he mercilessly vanquished all of his domestic opponents and remained hostile to U.S. interests in the region.
Over a decade later, in 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration implemented a “light footprint” approach to the invasion of Iraq. Although the small number of U.S. troops wasn’t the only reason for the
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