I haven’t watched the video of James Foley’s beheading, nor will I. Like Foley, I’m a freelance reporter — though with neither his well-deserved stature nor humbling courage — and a New England native, and his brutal murder has disturbed me greatly. Just considering what might happen to Steven Sotloff, the other American journalist shown in the video (and threatened to meet Foley’s fate if Obama doesn’t draw down the air raids against ISIS) turns my stomach. Feeling such a visceral, instinctual desire for justice — and even retribution — without having watched the video, I can hardly imagine the emotions felt by his friends and colleagues who chose to watch it. And yet, regardless of my emotions, I cannot support an armed incursion into Iraq or Syria, regardless of the level of cruelty and evil that ISIS demonstrates. That we have already sent more than a thousand “boots on the ground” into Iraq sets us on a dangerous course, while any further American presence only satisfies our base desire for vengeance. In the process, the mere existence of American troops is only likely to embolden the dangerous, reactionary forces in the region — as their presence has in the recent past.
Of course, the typical neocon war hawks — the very same Thought Leaders who beat the drum for our incursion in Iraq so loudly and effectively the last time — have come back out to bash Obama, blaming the existence of ISIS wholly on his cautious approach in the region and calling for a major troop commitment. It’s heartening that, this time, it seems not many are listening to their deeply ahistorical (if not downright hypocritical) advice.
I do not envy Obama here. As Conor Freidersdorf wrote in the Atlantic, the president is facing a collection of impossible choices, each with the potential to set off a cavalcade of unintended consequences that could lead to unconscionable suffering and misery — in a part of the world where both are already far too common. Admirably, Freidersdorf is hesitant to opine firmly on the crisis in Syria and Iraq at all, noting that, regardless of your position or ideology, it’s comical and absurd to claim that one can realistically predict the consequences of intervention after decades of American miscalculations — except to expect the worst:
The optimal policy in Iraq right now is beyond my knowledge. I strongly suspect that it is beyond everyone else’s knowledge too, but if the choice is between trusting the neoconservatives or Obama, as depressing as that choice is to me, I have no problem determining who’s been wrong on Iraq earlier, more often, and with greater consequences in the past, though they never admit it. Hawkish hubris and irrepressible faux-certainty makes Obama look good by comparison, quite a feat given his own ample missteps and shortcomings. Let’s all hope that in the present crisis he succeeds spectacularly, whatever that means, remembering that none of us would know just what to do in his place.
Of course, at the Weekly Standard, editor Bill Kristol, Head Cheerleader of the squad that pushed the second Iraq War, believes (as always) that he knows exactly what to do in the Middle East. And, as always, regardless of circumstances, history, repercussions or cost, Kristol favors more war. In a recent piece so typically Kristollian that it could have been written as parody, Kristol is critical of Obama’s speech following the barbaric murder of James Foley. “In the past century, the evildoers failed because America and its allies fought them and defeated them.”
OK, so maybe only really in the first half of the past century (a time period almost no one alive remembers, much less experienced), but who’s counting? After all, why base your predictions about what might happen if we choose to intervene on the past 70 years of American foreign policy … when the preceding 40 years fit into your narrative so much more neatly? (Kristol gets even more ridiculous later, when he chides the secretary of state, asking — without a shred of self-awareness or irony — “Is John Kerry a reliable guide to the future? He hasn’t been before. “ Pot, meet kettle.)
At the Washington Post, former Iraq War speechwriter/spin-doctor-extraordinaire Michael Gerson is similarly critical of Obama, despite having never grappled with his own shameless role in leading America to war — and, by extension, creating the conditions in which ISIS would form and flourish. Gerson is particularly critical of Obama’s “narrow” objectives — without, of course, articulating what Gerson’s own ideas of “wider” objectives might look like. ”Narrowing your objectives doesn’t actually narrow your problems,” he tells us, “and denial and delay may greatly complicate such problems.” (As might reckless foreign interventionism, but no matter.)
It’s somewhat encouraging that Kristol and Gerson are in increasingly lonely territory here. Even the Post’s Charles Krauthammer – no Obama fan – seems to support the president’s commitment to “narrow” objectives — namely, using a combination of airstrikes and Kurdish support to push back ISIS:
“Obama had said that there is no American military solution to the conflict. This may be true, but there is a local military solution. (There must be: There is no negotiating with Islamic State barbarism.) And that solution requires U.S. air support.”
Some, such as William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, are unhappy with even the current level of intervention. They would rather we remove ourselves from Iraq and Syria completely, that we learn the lesson of our past foreign policy failures by committing fully to a new isolationism. While I’m deeply sympathetic to the sentiment, and maintain that any considerable commitment of ground troops is a serious mistake, a “Fool Me Once” moment if you will, airstrikes against ISIS and aid to the Kurds fighting for their lives in Northern Iraq seems reasonable. (Though better to provide the Kurds with humanitarian than military aid — weapons can always end up in the wrong hands, with disastrous results.)
The increasing appearance of American soldiers on the ground is troubling; they now number in the thousands. This is the very definition of mission creep, and threatens to bring about a third Iraq War — with all its requisite destruction, expense and wasted lives. So I’ll hold my applause for Obama’s current strategy, and continue to hope that he displays the caution that has come to define his foreign policy regime. The president must remember that deploying troops — even in a limited fashion – only encourages the powder-keg conditions that can then demand a larger commitment. And that’s something that nobody with a credible track record on these issues can possibly desire.