In this file photo released by the U.S. Navy on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, A-18C Hornet, attached to Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 87, prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) to conduct strike missions against Islamic State group targets, in the Arabian Gulf.
Photo by Robert Burck/U.S. Navy-File/AP

The state of America’s wars

This column is part of “The State of America,” an series leading up to President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address on Tuesday, Jan. 20. This is the state of the issues you care about, as told by organizations promoting social change and other policy experts.

The Middle East has not figured prominently in President Obama’s past State of the Union addresses. This year, however, it will warrant a bit more discussion, given that the preceding year saw two major U.S. initiatives: An intensive effort by Secretary of State John Kerry to negotiate a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord, which seemed to worsen U.S.-Israeli tensions while motivating Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to revert to the United Nations Security Council for diplomatic satisfaction and the International Criminal Court for legal retaliation; and a U.S.-led military campaign against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in both Iraq and Syria.

Tensions between the U.S. and Israel have fluctuated for a while – as a recent account of the George W. Bush administration’s experience has shown – so that was not really news. And the Palestinian president has brandished the weapon of U.N. action for years. In between there was a bloody flare-up between Hamas and Israel that exposed a vast tunnel network beneath the border between Gaza and Israel and triggered the first Israeli ground incursion since the military withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Dramatic as all this was, it will probably elicit little in speech content. This is a movie most voters have seen before. It is doubtful at this stage that most Americans seriously expect their president to produce a final status accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

Related: US strongly disagrees with possible war crimes probe in Gaza

The other initiative, a war against a surging jihadist movement in Syria and Iraq, will likely compensate for the low impact of the Middle East peace process on the perceptions of the president’s State of the Union audience. Obama had pledged to end U.S. involvement in the two post-9/11 wars. It now looks as though the war in Iraq has restarted and one in Syria is beginning. 

“Last year, U.S. aircraft flew just under 7,000 combat sorties, launching nearly 6,000 bombs and missiles. And that is just the sharp end of the spear.”
Last year, U.S. aircraft flew just under 7,000 combat sorties, dropping or launching nearly 6,000 bombs and missiles. And that is just the sharp end of the spear. To keep the spear honed and in motion, U.S. forces flew over 2,000 reconnaissance and surveillance missions, 2,000 airlift and airdrop sorties and carried out nearly 30,000 aerial refuelings. On the ground, about 2,100 U.S. military personnel are in Iraq advising and assisting Iraqi forces and providing protection to U.S. personnel and missions. That figure is expected to grow by as many as 1,300 later this month as part of the expanded U.S. military presence Obama ordered in November to help Iraq reclaim territory taken by ISIS. The official objective of this campaign is to “ultimately” destroy ISIS in what the administration says will be a three-year effort.

If the president turns to this topic in his address, it will be because of the controversy that has revolved around the renewal of combat operations. Three themes intertwine in this debate. The first is, how did this happen? Critics of the administration fault the White House for carrying out the withdrawal of combat forces that President Bush negotiated with Iraq before he left office in January 2009. In their view, he should have repudiated the bilateral agreement negotiated by Bush and compelled the Iraqi government to accept a continuing U.S. military presence despite the opposition of the democratically elected Iraqi parliament and Iraqi voters. 

How the U.S. was to accomplish this is not spelled out by critics, apart from vague assertions that the White House just didn’t try very hard to stay. From the administration’s perspective, the Iraqi government had embraced policies that discriminated against Sunnis while stripping the army of its professional officer corps and substituting a Shiite leadership selected for its sectarian loyalty. Most observers saw this as a perversely perfect way for the Maliki government to start a war with Sunnis at the same time as Maliki’s team was systematically jettisoning the very tools needed to fight the war. But just because you can see a wreck in the making doesn’t mean you can prevent it, especially when the drivers have thrown their steering wheels out the window.

The second controversial issue is why the administration seemed oblivious to the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and apparently unwilling to do anything about it. This argument is contrived as well. The fact is that ISIS and its precursors were fighting the government all along and everyone knew it, including Washington. The real issue was whether the U.S. should have jumped back into Maliki’s arms and enabled him to perpetuate policies that were tearing Iraq apart.

Related: President Obama: America ‘underestimated’ ISIS

A more self-defeating impulse would be difficult to imagine. Dangling this glittering moral hazard in front of Maliki would have empowered him to suppress Iraq’s Sunni population all the more fiercely through the application of American firepower. The ISIS breakthrough at Mosul and its encirclement of Yezidi Iraqis on Mount Sinjar was just the sort of shock treatment needed to get Iraq’s Shiite rulers, under U.S. pressure, and their Iranian backers to sideline Maliki and put in place a government that would at least pay lip service to Sunni equality. This then opened the door to the military assistance that Obama announced last August.

A third controversy swirled around the size and scope of U.S. air operations in Syria against ISIS and its al Qaeda cousins, who call themselves al-Nusra. (There were small ground operations there as well.) The issue is whether the U.S. ought to be focusing on ISIS or going after the Assad regime. The underlying idea is that if the Syrian regime were overthrown, the revolt against it would fade away along with ISIS. This view, it has to be said, is shared by America’s Gulf allies as well as Turkey. 

“The fact is that ISIS was fighting the government all along and everyone knew it. The real issue was whether the U.S. should have jumped back into Maliki’s arms and enabled him to perpetuate policies that were tearing Iraq apart.”
The view from Washington is clearly different. The U.S. reckons that a long term, systematic effort to arm and train a more-or-less moderate Syrian opposition that has been filtered for jihadist sympathies is the best way to challenge the Assad regime militarily and force it to negotiate an end to the civil war. Strengthening and protecting vulnerable countries where the U.S. does have an interest – especially Iraq and Jordan – and providing humanitarian assistance for the massive numbers of people displaced by the war makes more sense than imposing regime change on Syria and taking responsibility for the fate of that deeply divided country.

It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that the U.S. is focused on ISIS for now. Thus far, airstrikes have hemmed in the jihadists. Boots on the ground would of course provide the ultimate therapy, but no one, including Sen. John McCain, a prominent advocate of deepened U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war, has advocated this course of action. It is too expensive, the American people don’t favor it, and those who remember Iraq recall that the presence of foreign forces there did as much to fuel an insurgency as it did to quell it. 

Over the three-year projected timeframe for the war against ISIS, the U.S.-backed Syrian opposition, the Kurdish peshmerga army, and Iraqi forces trained by the U.S. will have to degrade ISIS with the help of American air power. The jury is out on whether they’ll succeed. If they do, it will be because the Iraqi state has improved the lot of its Sunni citizens and taken the wind out of ISIS’s sails. This is a big “if.” In the meantime, the burden will fall on U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies – and those of its European and Arab allies – to make it as hard as possible for would-be jihadists inspired by ISIS and real jihadists returning from the front to wreak havoc at home. The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris shows how hard this can be.

Steven Simon is a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College and the co-author of “The Age of Sacred Terror: Radical Islam’s War Against America” and “The Next Attack.” He served on the National Security Council staff 1994-1999 and 2011-12.