Once More Into the Breach?

EDGARTOWN, Mass — A senior White House official said on Wednesday that the United States would consider using American ground troops to assist Iraqis in rescuing Yazidi refugees if recommended by military advisers assessing the situation.

That is the opening paragraph of the top story on the New York Times’ website right now. President Obama’s recent authorization of air strikes in Iraq on rebel positions was greeted with a shrug, but it was also accompanied by a promise that there would be no return to ground combat. This makes sense. We’ve been bombing Iraq off and on for over twenty years. Outkast’s B.O.B (Bombs Over Baghdad) was recorded one year before the 9/11 attacks. Four, FOUR!, consecutive U.S. presidents have ordered air strikes in Iraq. Three of those four have presided over ground actions. If it weren’t for Afghanistan and a couple of other hotspots, bombing Iraq would be about all that’s keeping the heavy munitions industry afloat. Bombing Iraq has become normal, just something we do.

Now a ‘senior White House official,’ in fact, Benjamin Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, is being quoted in America’s paper of record as saying that ground troops have not, in fact, been ruled out. What is this? Is this an overzealous staffer speaking out of turn? Is it the west wing floating an idea to gauge public reaction? I hope that’s all it is. The lack of any serious pushback against the air strikes surely emboldened the hawks in the administration, and mentioning ground troops in this way may be an attempt to see just how far they can go. That does beg the question, though — is sending American ground forces back into Iraq a good idea?

That answer is simple. No, it is not a good idea. It’s a terrible idea. That country has eaten up far too much of our history. Our relations with Iraq, both good, bad, and everything in between, has had reverberations far beyond that country’s import. Most of the mess is our own doing, but we’ve buggered fixing things so badly that all that’s rationally left is for us to step away. That’s the easy thing to do, the least risky, probably what the majority of the American people want, and it will surely result in thousands of people dying.

There’s always a sticking point, isn’t there?

President Obama is considering using ground troops in a humanitarian role, either protecting or directly aiding Yazidi refugees fleeing ISIS rebels. Tens of thousands of Iraqis have had the misfortune of being the wrong sect of Islam from the rebels. The rebels’ lack of religious tolerance means the region, not just the country, is on the precipice of genocide. Sectarian warfare is already a reality. Genocide is the logical next step. An American ground presence would be a powerful tool to ensure these people can find immediate safety. But, while the White House may say ground troops would be limited to humanitarian relief, such a pronouncement is silly and stupid.

It’s only been a few years since we left Iraq. In doing so, we left a country that exposed our vulnerabilities so badly that, while we arrived in Humvees, we left in MRAPs. While humanitarian armies have been useful around the world at protecting civilians, none of those armies have a history of direct warfare in the country where they were then sent as a relief force. The ISIS rebels are a deadly force. Any American troops in Iraq, no matter their reason for being there, would become targets. Not long after, Army commanders would have to authorize some offensive operations for the purpose of force protection. Not long after that, the two forces, ours and theirs, become belligerents fighting a war. That is one of the ways wars start.

I’m glad it’s not my call to make. But what I really want is for the president and his people to not be cavalier with the idea that they will be able to dictate the tempo of operations in a hostile country. If we were so good at that, we wouldn’t have lost the Vietnam War, or left Iraq a broken and battered place.