US President Barack Obama meets with House and Senate leaders from both parties on June 18 to discuss options on responding to the actions of Sunni militants in Iraq. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)
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Almost from the start, policymakers in Washington have assured the public that the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan were merely part of a more expansive, undefined “Long War” against violent Islamic extremism.
While the Long War concept made politicians and op-ed writers appear as if they were thinking in broad, strategic strokes, the events of last week showed just how little we can predict how and where that war — such as it is — will be fought.
With his announcement that as many as 300 US military advisers will be sent to Iraq to bolster the government in its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, President Barack Obama became the fourth consecutive American president to commit US assets, and lives, to one fight or another in Iraq.
Obama’s move comes after two years of boasting how his administration ended American involvement in an eight-year war that cost 4,500 American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars. But it also crystallizes how deeply his view of the war differs from that of the Bush administration.
The Bush administration promised to hit hard any country that harbored al-Qaida, resulting in eight years in Iraq, 13 and counting in Afghanistan, and drone and special operations strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
Obama has kept the drone war going, but in a much-derided address at West Point in May, he outlined what his administration had already been doing in Africa, the Middle East, South America, Eastern Europe and elsewhere: Helping local allies bolster their military so they can clean up their own neighborhoods, rather than shuttling US quick-reaction forces across the globe.
That method for engagement is a direct result of the lessons the Pentagon claims to have learned from failures in Iraq and Afghanistan — an inability to understand the languages, culture, history, social cues and grudges of the countries where US forces find themselves entangled. And now those lessons in partnering with local forces, learned in Iraq, will be applied in Iraq.
Congress has been unsure how to respond, with Democratic Sen. Carl Levin cautiously applauding the president’s decision on Iraq as “prudent” while warning that further US military involvement “will not serve [US] interests” without serious Iraqi political reforms.
The reaction across Capitol Hill has been measured, with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi saying “you have to be careful sending special forces because that’s a number that has a tendency to grow,” and Republican Sen. Ted Cruz warning of his concerns that “our people on the ground will become pawns in a sectarian conflict that we cannot control.”
Rep. Adam Smith, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, also warned the White House that once those 300 troops are in place, we “must also firmly guard against mission creep.”
After 13 years of missions that have grown, then shrunk, then grown again, the so-called Long War appears to be a mission that continues to creep along. ■
John T. Bennett’s column will return in the June 30 issue.