Opinion
Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Opinion Op-Ed
Op-Ed

Obama, be upfront on Iraq

What does 'win' actually mean this time around in Iraq?

Let's be honest. The United States has crossed the threshold on Iraq. We're in it to salvage the country — again — using American military might.

But the mission has also, very quickly, grown much bigger in less than two weeks. U.S. warplanes are no longer simply helping create escape routes for the Yazidis or protecting American personnel in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S. is now directly taking on the world's most militant extremist group, bombing its positions at the Mosul dam and beyond.

And it's probably only the beginning.

President Obama implied as much Monday. The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is "a savage group that seems willing to slaughter people for no rhyme or reason other than they have not kowtowed," he told reporters. The United States has a national security interest in making sure "that a group like that is contained, because ultimately they can pose a threat to us."

The U.S., however, is already doing more than containing the Islamic State. Washington has now dispatched warplanes to aggressively push back the Islamic State, and the pretense of doing anything less should end.

But so should the illusion about what it will take to achieve that goal. The Operation Without a Name should not be an operation without a well-defined mission — or without a "winning" exit strategy.

Given the human heartache and political headache from the last Iraq intervention, not to mention the mess left behind, Washington needs to be honest upfront in answering basic questions. I've spent decades on the ground and in the minutiae of the Middle East, including Iraq, and I can't yet discern the specifics of Washington's intentions.

What does "win" actually mean this time around? It's pretty fuzzy right now. We're in that feel-good phase of having helped prevent a genocide. But what's next specifically — and beyond?

An American role is not likely to stop at the Mosul dam, where fighting reportedly resumed a day after Obama said Iraqi forces, with backup from American air power, had reclaimed it.

How long could this mission last, if the Islamic State does not crumble as quickly as the Iraqi army did? I wouldn't bet on weeks. Or even months. This is a new phase in confronting extremism.

And, most of all, what are the potential unintended consequences?

Two leap out: The first and obvious danger is that the Islamic State will target Americans, at home and/or abroad. On Monday, ISIS boasted on its websites, "America will disappear from the map soon on the hands of the knights of al-Khalifa," a reference to its illusionary caliphate. An English-language video also warned, "We will drown all of you in blood" in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes. In its first terrorist act against an American, the Islamic State on Tuesday beheaded photojournalist James Foley, who had been held for 21 months.

The president pledged Wednesday, "When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what's necessary to see that justice is done." He vowed to act against the Islamic State.

The second unintended consequence is that, after three years of avoiding intervention, the U.S. may have effectively crossed the threshold on Syria, because the Islamic State will be a threat to minorities and majorities across the region, as well as American interests, if the group holds any territory. The Islamic State controls almost a third of Syria. It has the oil-rich east and is now pushing toward Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the south. The Islamic State has slaughtered or threatened tribes and minorities in Syria too. Even if U.S. military muscle pushes it back into Syria, Islamic State forces remain a broader regional threat.

Tragically, given the political polarization in Washington, especially in an election season, any policy debate over answers to these questions is likely to break down on party lines rather than be framed in terms of what is in everyone's long-term interests. So we get sound bites rather than solutions to a real national security threat.

Robin Wright, author of "Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World," is a distinguished scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter@latimesopinion

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Make no mistake: We're back in an Iraq war

    Make no mistake: We're back in an Iraq war

    Every time Barack Obama thinks he has succeeded in establishing restraint as the central doctrine of his foreign policy, a new outburst of chaos in the Middle East draws him back in. In 2011, fears that Libya's Moammar Kadafi would massacre opponents led the United States into an air war. In 2013,...

  • Deprogamming the Southern California lawn

    Deprogamming the Southern California lawn

    My first lawn in Southern California was at a Burbank rental where the landlord asked my husband and me to keep the yard watered. A dewy-eyed newbie to this end of the state, I thought, “Not a problem.” The landlord paid for the water and it was mid-1980s cheap.

  • The tide finally turns on L.A. County beach access

    The tide finally turns on L.A. County beach access

    In the ongoing battle between the California Coastal Commission and property owners over public access to the beach, one of the lengthiest skirmishes has been the one the state agency waged with Malibu resident Lisette Ackerberg. But after more than a decade of legal wrangling in and out of court,...

  • A welcome focus on job creation by L.A. officials -- but can they deliver?

    A welcome focus on job creation by L.A. officials -- but can they deliver?

    Ten months ago, when Mayor Eric Garcetti proposed raising the city's minimum wage to lift people out of poverty, The Times, along with business groups and others, called on him to develop a comprehensive job creation strategy and to focus on attracting the kinds of $20- and $30-an-hour jobs Los...

  • Gardena, release the police video

    Gardena, release the police video

    As more police agencies put video recorders in their patrol cars and issue body cameras to their officers, policymakers must grapple with how and when to release the recordings to the public. These can be difficult questions, but the legal fight over the recordings of a shooting of two unarmed...

  • There's already a law for that

    There's already a law for that

    American criminal codes are a mess, and every year they become more convoluted, more likely to foster injustice. States across the nation are trying to clean up the muddle, but prosecutors often threaten those efforts.

  • My aging brain makes me feel stupid

    My aging brain makes me feel stupid

    Meet my brain. It is the size of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's fist, the consistency of flan, weighs as much as a two-slice toaster and looks like ground round with a high fat content. If you saw it at the butcher's, you'd ask for something a little less beige.

  • New study says Hepatitis drugs could cost state taxpayers billions

    New study says Hepatitis drugs could cost state taxpayers billions

    Jaws dropped earlier this year when Gov. Jerry Brown told the Legislature that he wanted to set aside $300 million for two years' worth of specialty drugs for Medi-Cal users, state prisoners and others covered by state health programs. Even with a general fund of more than $110 billion, $300 million...

Comments
Loading