Slippery slopes are tricky things. Their dangers are underestimated. The ability to navigate them is overestimated. Forgotten past experiences are remembered only after sliding down them. The current situation in Iraq is a slippery slope. “It’s déjà vu all over again”, as Yogi Berra once quipped.
In 2011, the U.S. withdrew military forces from Iraq – 4,487 American soldiers had been killed and 32,223 wounded in action, according to the Department of Defense, and $1.9 trillion dollars spent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Other estimates total the true overall financial cost between $3-6 trillion dollars. The cost in human life alone is more precious than the cost in money.
It was indeed very good to have all American military men and women home, and out of harm’s way in Iraq. At the time in 2011, President Obama stated “…a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant. We will work to promote an Iraqi government that is just, representative, and accountable, and that provides neither support nor safe haven to terrorists.”
The current events of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) sweeping through large swathes of Iraq, easily taking cities and routing the Iraqi army (when the Iraqi army stood ground, instead of fleeing or deserting), shows a much different story. Now, we are being drawn back to Iraq. It reminds me of President Bush’s 2003 statement of “mission accomplished” after the initial invasion, only to be followed by years of a hard occupation.
It is not that Americans are isolationists. Long gone are the days that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans protected us from the rest of the world. We recognize that we cannot withdraw completely from the world stage. But, Americans have become weary of wars and wary of getting entangled in new ones.
There are “hawks” who want renewed military intervention. They may have a point, to a degree. Protecting ourselves from terrorism (the events of 9-11 not being forgotten) requires a proactive stance to be taken. It is a philosophy not just that a strong defense is a strong offense, but also that striking first is the best defense.
There are “doves” who want to keep full restraint on any renewed military involvement. They may have a point, to a degree. Being drawn back into the unsolvable political and cultural messes in Iraq may end up hurting us, not helping us, or the Iraqi people. It is a philosophy of not just avoiding creating quagmires for America, but also quagmires for other countries.
So, what to do?
I advocate that it is the Iraqi people who need to step up and directly save their own country from the advances of ISIS. It is the Iraqi people only who can reverse the worsening sectarian divides among Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. We fool ourselves to think we can solve their problems. We were not able to do so when we occupied Iraq. Current calls for the U.S. to remove Prime Minister Maliki, an ineffective leader who has fostered sectarian divides in his country, and have a more favorable person installed, smack of nation building. America has a troubled history in this regard. Do we really think we can find someone better?
The slippery slope that is Iraq is ever more slippery because it involves Iran and Syria. The ongoing, bloody civil war in neighboring Syria involves ISIS, which not only controls parts of Iraq, but also parts of Syria. Getting drawn into the battles in Iraq will cause us to get involved in the battles in Syria. Neighboring Iran is already in Iraq, having elite troops in country. American involvement could bump into Iranian involvement. The whole region is a mess, with the U.S. involved still in Afghanistan, which is on the other side of Iran.
We can help as we are able to do so in a limited manner, but let’s acknowledge the reality of the situation. What will 300 advisors do? Will more be needed? Targeted airstrikes may help. But, will an escalation of involvement be required if our initial help does not work, such as sending in ground troops?
I don’t mention lightly the analogy of the Vietnam War. It started with watching the French suffer a major defeat at Bien Dien Phu and having to withdraw from Indochina. We sent advisers. It developed into the need to send more advisors, then troops, then more troops, to support a series of corrupt and ineffective governments in Vietnam. We waged nation building in Vietnam, even removing leaders, such as the bloody coup that replaced (and killed) President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, only to find their replacements were no better, but actually worse. We paid a heavy toll for our involvement in Vietnam.
It is a difficult decision to not involve America again in Iraq. But, there are times that the easy decision is the one with the most troubled consequences.
I support 100% the men and women who serve in our armed forces. We need them every day and night to provide us security so we can enjoy our freedoms and rights. There is no disconnect between supporting our troops and questioning, even at times opposing, putting our military people in harm’s way. An active citizenry has a responsibility to question what its government and political leaders are thinking and doing. It is an American thing to do.
I hope that the lessons of the past, especially the recent past, are not forgotten. Whatever military action is taken in the short-term in Iraq, the lessons of what slippery slopes can do should be remembered, because they are often painful lessons to relearn, with long-lasting consequences for us all.