Today, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that the fight against the Islamic State could take decades. This is hardly an unreasonable assertion considering our war against al-Qaida is now thirteen years old. (I was sixteen on September 11th and am now twenty-nine. There are high schoolers alive today who have no memory of a United States at peace.) New, yet to be named operations in Iraq and Syria do not show signs of a speedy resolution. After all, it might take a year to train the Iraqi Security Forces to a readiness level suitable to start a ground campaign against IS. (I expect that estimate is optimistic—coalition forces trained the ISF for at least seven years, but it did not prevent the ISF from collapsing against IS earlier this year.)
Panetta goes on to blame President Obama for not forcing former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraqi government in 2011 to accept a new Status of Forces Agreement with diplomatic immunity for US forces. In his view, the absence of this hypothetical SOFA and continued troop presence created a security vacuum and thus IS—a position shared by Senator John McCain and the GOP as well. This sort of cognitive dissonance concerning the recent origins of unrest in the “Greater Middle East” aside, there are a few troubling points within his statements.
1. We are fast approaching the longest war in US history—one that spans continents and has no end in sight. In just seven years we will be fighting AQ and its associates/separatists for as long as we were fighting communists in Vietnam (“advisor years” included). As the Vietnam War could be considered the US’s most embarrassing foreign policy blunder (or more accurately string of blunders), why is our Department of Defense not a learning institution?
2. Panetta complained that Obama “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” How do we live in a world where a leader in the US government’s highest offices (Secretary of Defense, Director of the CIA, etc.) can claim that logic is a lesser trait than passion? It continues to astonish me that we allow our elected and appointed leaders to make these sophomoric emotional statements.
3. To what end do we accept that this war will take decades? After IS is degraded and destroyed—then what? Shall we keep US forces in the Middle East indefinitely, fighting the next armed group who opposes imperialism? Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war to prevent this scenario. It is not within the American people’s strategic interests to remain there. The question should not be, “What is the most recent action by a US administration that led to the strengthening of IS,” the question should be, “How did we end up here in the first place,” and, “How do we avoid doing it again?”
I admit I do not have the answers to these questions. But the US has a long history of addressing the symptoms and not the root cause of its problems. This part of Obama’s address to the American people about this still unnamed operation in Iraq and Syria is telling:
“I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
If Yemen and Somalia are our measure of success, I am positive we will continue to be successful in Iraq and Syria.