In case you haven't heard, shit's getting worse in Iraq again. Islamic militants have expanded their control over territory, secured a dam that provides water and power to much of the country's north, and now threaten a religious minority with extinction. What the hell happened to the military forces America sent over in June?
That's a question that the Daily Beast's Jacob Siegel is asking this afternoon. He notes that the situation is getting dire for the Yazidis of Northern Iraq, a Kurdish-speaking minority with an ancient religion, some 40,000 of whom took to the hills after their ancestral home was overrun by the Islamic State, the murderous dicks formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The UN reports that 40 children in the trapped community have already starved to death.
That news comes as IS militants also pushed protective Kurdish forces into retreat and seized control of Iraq's largest dam on the Tigris River, whose release could supposedly launch a 65-foot wave at the major city of Mosul, in addition to depriving residents of drinking water and electricity.
President Obama is reportedly mulling action—bizarrely, either "airstrikes or airdrops of food and medicine," the Times writes—but Siegel asks whether the U.S. will do anything to really change the situation:
Last month, the U.S. sent more than 800 special operations troops to Iraq, including a contingent now stationed in Erbil, within the Kurdish autonomous region. But so far, even as the Kurds have requested assistance repeatedly and launched a new counteroffensive, the United States has been reluctant to move past its advisory role and directly enter the fray.
On Wednesday, Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a U.S. Defense Department spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast: "U.S. troops are not engaged in a combat role in Iraq." That position could be changing now as the president meets with his security advisors to weigh his options. Currently the military forces in Iraq are acting as "advisors" whose mission is "to assess and to advise [Iraqi security forces] as they confront [ISIS] and the complex security situation on the ground." What kind of advice is being provided to the embattled Kurdish forces and whether advice is what they need right now are a matter of speculation.
U.S. attention, of course, is stretched thin with Gaza and Ukraine. But the near silence on Iraq is hard to square with the severity of the crisis and the initial decision to send military forces there.
If the American public and political class won't bear any U.S. military involvement in Iraq, why were troops dispatched to the country? And if ISIS overrunning the Kurds, taking control of key infrastructure, and carrying out a deliberate slaughter of the Yazidis isn't enough to get the U.S. forces involved, is there anything that would force a U.S. military response?
Obviously, next to no one in the United States gives a rat's ass about intervening, again, militarily in Iraq. It's not merely an issue of selfishness and isolationism, although 1.3 decades of war, recession, and internal political division have certainly made the American electorate pull its knees to its chest and block out much of the world.
It's also a matter of effectiveness: What can the U.S. do? Democracy-building didn't work out very well, and neither did equipping and training an Iraqi national army.
From a practical standpoint, the old lessons of counterinsurgency still seem to hold: Unless you have a limitless fount of time, money, and manpower, you can't remake a country in your own image. Even with those resources in your favor, you're not assured of success.
And that's just the practical end of the argument. There's also a moral argument: If the U.S. does have an ability to stop the spread of bad guys and bad deeds abroad—and that's the mother of all ifs—does it have a responsibility to do so? Plenty of Americans have long argued that the U.S. isn't the world's policeman. On the right, these critics say foreign lives just aren't worth America's investment in blood and treasure; on the left, they say policing is just colonialism writ large. These are both powerful sentiments, and worth taking seriously. But it's hard to shed a feeling that we should do something to stave off the deaths of thousands of innocents.
Which leads us back to Siegel's great question: If the U.S. can't or oughtn't effect a change in Iraq's fate, what the hell were we doing even sending a token force of 800 uniformed military advisors over there when the Islamic State first got control of much of the country? The short, annoying answer is that no president wants to be seen as the one who "lost" Iraq without doing something about it—even if doing something looks just like doing nothing.
This is how we have always danced the intervention tango: high-stepping with the same old questions, spinning down to the same old answers. In a few weeks' time, we'll probably be doing a lot more to save Iraq. Yet it probably won't be enough. Once again we confront a problem from hell. And again, it's a problem we had a hand in making.
[Photo credits: AP Images]