By John Isaacs
Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 in part by running as the peace candidate. In his last two and a half years in office, he risks the sobriquet “War President.”
In 2002, state senator Obama criticized the Iraq war launched by President George W. Bush as “a dumb war … a rash war.”
As president, he fulfilled that promised when he declined to overturn a Bush agreement with Iraq to withdraw all U.S. troops by 2011 – after a war that claimed 4,500 American lives and, according to one study, 500,000 Iraqi lives.
Then came the threat from the terror group ISIL in the Middle East, and suddenly the U.S. is back involved in Iraq and tentatively intervening in the very complicated situation in Syria after declining to do so for years.
The decision to send in 275 troops to protect the American Embassy in Bagdad in June 2014 has undergone mission creep with air strikes authorized in Syria and almost 3,000 troops today. Our new goal is now to degrade and ultimately destroy the self proclaimed “Islamic State.” The war, we are told, could go on for another 36 months.
As international relations specialist Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, Syria is the 14th Islamic country that U.S. forces have invaded, occupied or bombed since 1980. Bacevich added: “By inadvertently sowing instability, the United States has played directly into the hands of anti-Western radical Islamists.”
The president’s other “success” at extricating the U.S. from war is also being undermined. The president announced in May that all U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan would be withdrawn by the end of 2014 and the remaining 9,800 troops will have no combat role.
At the time, he declared “America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year. Starting next year, Afghans will be fully responsible for securing their country. American personnel will be in an advisory role. We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people.”
On November 21, The New York Times revealed a secret change of plans: now the remaining jets, bombers and drones will be able to support Afghan troops on combat missions against the Taliban.
A 13-year mission goes on for at least another year. Or more.
The United States has failed to learn from its sad history of military interventions in far-off conflicts, spending billions of dollars to train and build armies in foreign lands where few Americans understand the culture or language.
Governments focused on retaining tight control of the levers of power rather than building a pluralistic society that might have brought strong support turn out to be inadequate to security challenges when the U.S. has gone. The United States lost horribly in Vietnam; we lost badly in Iraq; we risk further failures.
It is not at all clear what another year or two of occupying territory with a fraction of our previous force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan can do to change the situation.
In May, the president declared: “I think Americans have learned that it’s harder to end wars than it is to begin them.”
On that, at least, he is correct.
Isaacs is senior fellow at Council for a Livable World and Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and worked on pacification in Vietnam for more than 13 months.