Bomb-crazy, "do something" neocons must be stopped -- or Iraq will be Obama's Vietnam

We have done enough harm. We're not able to do good. We must simply admit the enormity of our mistake -- and change

Published July 1, 2014 10:58PM (EDT)

John McCain    (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
John McCain (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

It is too soon to quote Reagan, much as one always longs to do so, and exclaim, “There he goes again!” But President Obama’s decision this week to dispatch yet more soldiers to Iraq prompts queasy-making memories of the early contingents of advisers and spooks Eisenhower sent to Vietnam after the French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954.

Obama started by sending 275 to 300 security, logistics, intelligence and advisory personnel in response to the lightning advance of ISIS militias toward Baghdad. Two weeks on, he is up to 750. We are still counting in three figures, but to those of a certain age this gives little comfort.

I do not like this one bit. The best to be said of Obama is that his foreign-policy inheritance seems to make him queasy, too. The worst is that he lacks the conviction, fortitude and political nous to do anything about it — and in this case to resist calls for yet a third intervention in a nation we have already turned from a hash into mincemeat.

These calls are too many. Sen. McCain, per usual, was quickest off the mark. Lindsey Graham and Bob Corker soon joined him on the Republican side of the Senate aisle. These guys want a bombing campaign on behalf of who can tell what. The Center for American Progress, one of those Washington “think” tanks where not much useful thinking gets done, wants Obama “to prepare for limited counterterrorism operations" against ISIS, including possible airstrikes.

It is a mistake to dismiss this as the stuff of unreconstructed militarists incapable of learning from history even if they have lived it, as McCain so bitterly did in Vietnam. Armed intervention remains the default position among the foreign-policy cliques, and there are no aisles to cross.

Dianne Feinstein, the most appallingly hawkish Democrat in the Senate since Hillary Clinton left Capitol Hill, is shoulder-to-shoulder with the GOP on the Iraq question. And I take her as a harbinger. If Obama slides further back into military engagement, the orthodoxy will regroup behind him after the merest hesitations, just as it did when Bush II started it all in 2003.

Washington has got itself into an almost tragic position now. It is one of almost complete impotence, even if this intervention balloons into another full-scale horror. And forget any idea that what we have now must be the denouement at last, for our leaders are gifted when it comes to somehow making worse what we take to be the worst.

The bitter truth is that there is nothing left for us to do for (or to) Iraq other than stay away. The one exception here would be to mount a serious humanitarian campaign, as lightning fast as the ISIS advances, based on morality, repentance and the duty of reparation. But this is a pro forma proposition, because you cannot trust people such as Samantha Power or Susan Rice with this kind of mission. We have long since proven incapable of the disinterest required to keep our mitts out of others’ business in the name of self-determination.

What is the basis of the position? I would need a book contract to finish the argument, but a few headline points fit in a column.

On the very face of it, since when does the transgressor repair the consequences of the transgression? We are tumbling over ourselves at this point, creating tragedy after tragedy and then falling back on the pose of humanity’s indispensable savior.

The illogic here reflects our inability to face who we are, what we do and how we do it. Since contracting out much of the imperial function is now the norm, are we going to send Blackwater, now hiding as Constellis Holdings, back among Iraqis? (And may as well note, astonishing this week to read James Risen’s report in the New York Times on the State Department’s supine collusion with these morons and murderers during the Iraq War — the second, as we may have to start numbering them.)

In short, Americans have no claim to a contribution in Iraq now. Related to this are a couple of long-standing faults when we take our place among others, and then one practical limitation.

One, we have little capacity to view any situation other than through the lens of our own assumptions and presumptions. Internal dynamics, histories and traditions other than our own, politics that do not fit our template — none of this registers.

Reaching back to 2003, Sergei Lavrov said recently, “The rampant terrorism is taking place due to the fact that the occupation troops didn’t pay any attention to the interior political processes, didn’t help the national dialogue, and only pursued their own interests.”

I am not with the Russian foreign minister on “rampant terrorism.” “Terrorist” and “terrorism” have turned into destructive terms in that they obviate the need to analyze causality and intent, and in this case ISIS is patently about something more than terrorizing a population for the sheer hell (literally) of it.

However, “interior political processes” — this is a sturdy, useful phrase, though the translator might have better settled on “internal.” If America’s leaders spent more time thinking about these and less deciding who next to call a terrorist, we would enjoy a far superior foreign policy.

Point two: Americans have little gift for diplomacy, with a few exceptions. We did not have much of a foreign policy until we were on the brink of achieving industrial superiority a century ago, and when we did — no coincidence — Wilson instantly gave us permission to preach to the world while listening to it little.

I keep going back to the final sentences of “Unvanquished,” Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1999 memoir, written after Washington hounded the U.N. secretary-general out of office because he was not sufficiently obedient: Diplomacy is for small nations, the cultivated Egyptian observed. The big ones have no need of it.

One way to read our time is that we are about to pay for this longtime luxury. Our material strengths — technological superiority, military primacy — already work against us, as in Iraq, and they could go all the way to sinking us, paradoxically, unless we recognize that they are not destined to be the assets in the 21st century  they were in the 20th.

Three, that practical matter. Make it 750 advisers or 75,000 troops, there is nothing America can accomplish on the ground in Iraq that can be of any use. The leadership is now discussing a new government to remove Nouri Kamal al-Maliki, the divisive Shiite we left behind, from office. But it is the same old: All candidates so far proposed are Shiite. And it seems almost an intentional nose-tweak that one of them is Ahmad Chalabi, the corrupt, politically promiscuous  snake-oil salesman who persuaded the Bush II people that they could bunce up the WMD argument to justify an invasion.

There is nothing in this, if there ever was. You cannot fire bullets at sectarian animosities, or a millennium of Islamic history, or ethnic identities, and expect a result. You can shoot, but you will kill only people. The rest will remain, and most of the people will be innocent.

In Iraq, we have made ourselves the Soviets of Afghanistan. What draws us back now is our inability to admit the enormity of the mistake -- in combination with our inability to understand a dynamic that is foreign to us.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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