NOTE: There will undoubtedly be updates regarding our Iraq adventure from time to tome. Click here for an updated list of prior columns and blog essays about terrorism and war.
The column, below, was composed and submitted immediately following the President's speech Wednesday evening, September 10, and published today, September 12. It reflects my immediate, personal reactions following that speech. During the 48 hours or more since, it has been both heartening and frightening to see how many individuals who know much more about international law, foreign affairs, policy analysis, and military strategy than I seem to hold similar views.
I had analogous concerns in 2003 and expressed them in the form of "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," a column in the local college paper, The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6. As the years passed, most of those concerns proved to have been valid.
Thereafter I wondered, as I do today about our 2014 Iraq adventure, if my instincts and intuition and limited knowledge are driving me to these concerns, concerns that seem to be shared by others more qualified, why, oh why, are we continuing to pursue such ill-fated approaches? I mean that seriously; what is it that causes our government's disconnect between what seems to be rather widely shared rational analyses by those of independent mind and the policies the government pursues in our name? That, of course, is a column for some future day.
Meanwhile, here is my Wednesday evening effort to understand our most current pursuit of folly, along with today's Press-Citizen editorial on the subject, and links to some prior writing of mine on this and related subjects.
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 12, 2014, p. A7
We must anticipate and be prepared for the unintended consequences of our action. . . . As we weigh our options, we should be able to conclude with some confidence that the use of force will move us toward the intended outcome.
-- General Martin Dempsey, Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 19, 2013
Once again, our oil has found its way under someone else’s land.
Once again, we must turn to our military leaders for the caution and rational analysis borne of their experience in battle and their study of history.
Now I’m not saying the pre-election threat to America from ISIS in President Obama’s scenario is no more serious today than the pre-election threat to America from Albania was in the movie “Wag the Dog.” Those ISIS folks seem a truly brutal lot.
But the intelligence community is much less alarmist than the politicians and pundits. As Matthew G. Olsen, National Counterterrorism Center director, put it last week, “ISIL is not Al Qaeda pre-9/11.” Homeland Security Secretary Jeh C. Johnson agrees: “We know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present.”
Moreover, the President’s strategy carries high risk of creating the very threat that does not now exist. Andrew Liepman, former National Counterterrorism Center deputy director says, “It’s pretty clear that upping our involvement in Iraq and Syria makes it more likely that we will be targeted by the people we are attacking.”
Put aside for the moment any moral questions about the inevitable deaths of thousands of civilians. Put aside legal questions about the President’s authority to wage this war, and international law restraints on “pre-emptive war.” Put aside the likelihood that our intervention will increase, rather than decrease, ISIS’ recruitment of terrorists and risk of harm to our homeland. Put aside the multi-trillion-dollar cost for our grandchildren of these Mideast adventures.
What is our goal? The President says it is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. What if the Iraqi Army is not up to that task? What’s “Plan B”? Do we go home, or send in American troops? Are we better off once we’ve destroyed the Syrian government’s toughest enemy?
Have we “destroyed” al Qaeda or just moved it off the front page? Assume we destroyed al Qaeda. How did that work out for us? We got ISIS. Do we really think if we could destroy ISIS nothing would replace it?
What’s our exit strategy? Once we “win,” how do we get out, and what happens when we do? Even if we could eliminate today’s chaos, tribalism, ethnic and religious conflict, why will it not return?
The most fundamental question that’s seldom if ever stated, let alone addressed or resolved is, “What is our ultimate goal, our purpose, for this air war in Iraq and Syria?” As I used to put it to my school board colleagues, "How would we know if we'd ever been successful?” Hopefully, our purpose is not limited to executing our “strategy” for winning battles and wars and then come home, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves.
Will we clean up after the party, reconstructing what war destroys? For how long? With how many billions of taxpayers’ dollars? Is nation-building still a part of our Mideast mission?
Even though we’re rightfully enraged over the beheadings, and want to “do something,” unthinking, precipitous action is not always the most effective revenge.
Nicholas Johnson, former Administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration, was responsible for sealift to Vietnam, and maintains www.nicholasjohnson.org and FromDC2Iowa.blogspot.com.
"Why Unwinnable 'Wars' Are 'Stupid Stuff;' Add 'Impossible to Win' to Objections to War With ISIS," September 23, 2014;
"Is U.S. Response Strengthening ISIS? Playing Into the Terrorists' Hands," September 19, 2014;
" Why Iowans Should Care About Iraq War III; Why Do We Accept Words Like 'Islam,' 'State,' and 'Caliphate'?" September 16, 2014;
"Is War the Best Answer?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 12, 2014, p. A7; embedded in " Whatever the Question, Is War the Best Answer?" September 10, 2014;
"Syria: Moral Imperatives and Rational Analyses; Spotting the Issues," September 4, 2013;
"Thinking About War -- Before Starting One," March 20, 2013;
"General Semantics, Terrorism and War," Fordham University, New York City, September 8, 2006;
"War in Iraq: The Military Objections," International Law Talks: War With Iraq, University of Iowa College of Law, February 27, 2003;
"Ten Questions for Bush Before War," The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. A6;
Nicholas Johnson, "Capitalists Can Help U.S. Avert War with Iraq," Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sunday Insight, October 6, 2002, p. A11;
Nicholas Johnson, "On Iraq, Tell the Rest of the Story," Iowa City Gazette, October 2, 2002, p. A4;
Nicholas Johnson, "Let's not get between Iraq and a hard place," Omaha World-Herald, August 13, 2002 (and as published in the Iowa City Press-Citizen and as submitted to both);
Nicholas Johnson, "Search for Better Response Than War; Don't Reward the Terrorists, but Understand Their Interests," Des Moines Sunday Register Opinion/Iowa View, June 30, 2002, p. OP3;
Nicholas Johnson, "Rethinking Terrorism," National Lawyers Guild Conference, University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa, March 2, 2002.
Iowa City Press-Citizen
September 12, 2014, p. A7
Has it really been fewer than 18 months since President Obama said it was time for the U.S. to stop thinking about future conflicts in terms of “a boundless ‘global war on terror’ ”?
Speaking in May 2013 — more than a decade after Congress first approved the Authorization to Use Military Force in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — the president suggested that the nation, instead, should start viewing such military ventures as “a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks with other countries.”
The phrasing was meant to refocus the county’s attention toward the supposed endings of such military efforts. It was supposed to stop conjuring up the specter of a never-ending conflict that will continue to require the erosion of civil liberties and governmental checks and balances.
“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said at the time. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”
During his national address Wednesday night, however, the president again raised the specter of an open-ended, military involvement against a terrorist organization that calls itself the “Islamic State” (aka ISIS, aka ISIL) and is scattered throughout the Middle East.
Speaking on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, Obama at times sounded like a saber-rattler. (“We will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. … If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.) And at other times, he risked sounding more like a stand-up comedian. (“Now let’s make two things clear: ISIL is not Islamic. … And ISIL is certainly not a state.”)
But the president did manage to outline a clear, four-step response to the long-term threat posed the Islamic State:
• 1: The U.S. will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against the terrorist group.
• 2: The U.S. will increase its support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground — whether in Iraq or Syria.
• 3: The U.S. will continue to draw on its “substantial counterterrorism capabilities” to prevent future attacks.
• 4: The U.S. will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to “innocent civilians who’ve been displaced by this terrorist organization.”
The president was equally clear that “this is not our fight alone” and that the American military would be playing more of an advisory role — with regional allies being the ones with boots on the ground.
Yet president didn’t address some of the basic questions — like, “What’s our end point?” — that should be answered before the U.S. commits to any “series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks with other countries.”
That’s why lawmakers, when responding to the president’s speech, couldn’t really criticize the tone and resolve. Yet they nearly all said they were waiting for more details to flesh out Obama’s broad strokes.
We’d like to believe Obama is moving past the failed policies of the “war on terror” approach. Yet the president also did raise the specter of Americans (and American intelligence) needing to keep a suspicious eye on allies and fellow citizens.
“We can’t erase every trace of evil from the world,” Obama said, “and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm. … And that’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.”
We’ve seen before how a seemingly never-ending, war-time agenda provides presidents with far too much unchecked authority. How it encourages further mission/linguistic drift and allows phrases like “immediate threat” to come to mean something more along the lines of a threat to someone, somewhere, sometime in the unknown future.
So in their vigilance, the American people also need to make sure that their leaders show they are learning the right lessons from the nation’s past foreign policy mistakes.