I’m skeptical about the capacity of the force of arms to provide solutions that endure very far into the future.
You probably are, too, if your confidence in the use of military power during World War II – some people call it the last “good war” – has been undermined by subsequent wars, especially Vietnam and our decade-plus wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The long-term futility of our recent wars does not indict the quality of our military. Our army and navy are the world’s best at what armies and navies do. Despite the ill-conceived missions mounted by civilian leadership during the past 50 years, our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have performed with dedication and self-sacrifice.
Clearly, our nation needs a strong military, and sometimes we need to use it. Unfortunately, some people are so bad that the only choice is to kill them.
ISIS, for example. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is made up of zealots who, in their dedication to their version of Sharia law, are willing to flog, amputate, stone, crucify and behead.
They subjugate women, kill children, and are capable of cold-blooded massacres like last week’s of 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers, murdered over differences that harken back to a disagreement over who should succeed Islam’s prophet, Mohammed, more than 1,000 years ago.
But any enthusiasm for using force against ISIS should be tempered with realism. Fortunately, President Obama’s instincts are toward caution and deliberation. But events are moving quickly.
Obama has announced the deployment of 300 military advisers, as well as his willingness to take “targeted and precise military action,” which probably includes airstrikes that, according to a senior administration official cited by The New York Times, could extend into Syria.
The pressure to strike is substantial. Not only does ISIS deserve whatever violence we can inflict on them, the U.S. has a lot invested in a stable Iraq. By some accounts the total cost of our involvement in Iraq reaches $4 trillion. Most important, 4,500 soldiers died over there.
Obama has predicated military action on an abrupt change of course by the Iraqi government toward a tolerant, multisectarian, democratic direction that reverses the exclusionary pro-Shia policies of the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
This seems as unlikely as the Bush/Cheney dream of Iraq as a beacon of democracy and reliable source of oil in the Middle East. And bombing more Muslims to achieve this end seems as unlikely now as it did to some critics in 2003.
Everyone agrees that the solution to this crisis has to be political, rather than military. However, once the serious shooting starts, events tend to take on a life of their own.
Here’s the important point: No political solution in this area is feasible if it doesn’t involve Iran. Iran’s interests in Iraq parallel ours for a short distance, and then they diverge. Both the U.S. and Iran desire a stable Iraq, but Iran is Shia, and it would prefer Shiites in charge next door, rather than a fractious conflation of Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
The Middle East is a deadly chess game. Sometimes in chess you make such a bad mistake during the first few moves that there’s not much to do but to start thinking about the next game.
Bush/Cheney made a very bad move in March 2003. Iran gained an advantage. It has an interest in destroying ISIS and extending its hegemony over Iraq, which could result in a Shia-dominated realm that stretches from Tehran to Damascus.
Is this the best outcome? No, but it may be the only possible one. A multisectarian, democratic Iraq is unlikely. An ISIS-dominated Iraq is unthinkable. But unless we’re willing to undertake full battle in a religious civil war, we’re obliged to acknowledge that we lost control of events a decade ago, and that the most likely road out of Iraq somehow leads through Iran. It’s their chessboard.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.