First, the ‘limited airstrikes’ as outlined, while seemingly easy and clean, would be of little use without competent soldiers to take and control territory afterward. The Iraqi Army is obviously incapable of such a feat, the Kurdish Peshmerga while admirably competent do not have the men or local support to do so, and so the only other options would be Iranian-backed Shia militias (creating atrocities along the way) or U.S. soldiers. Indeed, Secretary Hagel has explicitly stated that ‘boots on the ground’ may be necessary. To be clear: an approval of ‘strikes’ in Iraq inevitably means sending thousands of American soldiers into harms way, possibly for years once again.
ISIS is horrible, no doubt. But much worse than Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Boko Haram, Kim Jong Un, or any of hundreds of brutal regimes and forces around the world today? The brutal executions provoke anger, but that is their intent and we cannot allow ourselves to be so manipulated. The U.S. can scarcely afford, in neither financial nor moral terms, to be the world’s policeman. Attempting to do so, without rock solid national interests and benefits at stake only serves to weaken our country. If ISIS is a true threat to our core security, then we should act like it, and wage total war. If not, we need to not be half-hearted.
Finally, the strategic disaster that would absolutely follow a third invasion of Iraq is to be avoided at all costs. ISIS wants to be fighting the U.S., this must be clear to you from their taunting execution videos. Our presence there would only benefit them by justifying their fight against ‘the far enemy’. As we must have learned in the last 13 years of fighting al-Qaeda, they gladly trade a military loss for a propaganda victory. This invasion would provide that trade on a grand scale, for ISIS will surely lose ground and fighters, but will succeed either in holding ground against the local forces or by pulling American troops back into the quagmire of battling an Iraqi insurgency. To quote one expert: “Look, I’m all for “legitimate governance” in Syria (and everywhere else). But I also tried this with 150K troops and $1T in Iraq once.”
But something must be done! I realize this is the phrase of the hour regarding ISIS. Here is one strategy I think has more promise: contain them, and let them fail at governing. Their entire ethos is predicated on implementing “Sharia law” in their “Caliphate”. Many are simply murderous psychopaths and losers, and at creating good governance (even their twisted view of it) they will fail. So continue aiding the Peshmerga and Iraqi Army (and let Iran and Assad take care of themselves), empower Iraqi Sunnis, and aid those within ISIS controlled-areas to report on how awful it truly is. This is the propaganda loss they fear more than a military one, and must be the end we seek.