SAN FRANCISCO — President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. combat troops from Iraq in 2011, honoring an agreement signed by President George W. Bush in 2008, and has committed to bringing our soldiers home from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
Together, these decisions promise to close a painful chapter in our foreign policy, in which we needlessly squandered both blood — of our own cherished sons and daughters, and of literally countless Iraqis and Afghans — and treasure, to the conservatively estimated tune of $4 trillion.
In Afghanistan, where the Taliban is resurgent, it is not clear what, if anything, we accomplished through these great sacrifices, whereas in Iraq it is evident that we have successfully transformed it into the jihadist camp we falsely claimed it to be in trying to justify our initial invasion.
While Obama has generally demonstrated greater reticence than his predecessor in committing U.S. troops to foreign wars, he has sent a force of 300 U.S. soldiers to Iraq in response to the military successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives passed a 2015 defense appropriations bill last week totaling $571 billion, which included $79.4 billion for “overseas contingency operations.” It is conceivable that such funds could be directed toward renewed military engagement in Iraq and extended military actions in Afghanistan beyond our scheduled withdrawal date of December 2014.
Obama must resist the temptation — not to mention the stream of advice from neoconservatives, “liberal interventionists” and other policy hawks now parading through media studios throughout the country — to double down on disaster.
While it is a bitter pill to swallow to witness Iraq splintering and falling, in substantial part, into ISIS hands, we will only compound our costs and mistakes by attempting to fix an unfixable mess.
There is simply no way to spin recent ISIS successes as positives. It is particularly worrisome to ponder what firepower or other mischief ISIS might purchase with the $400 million-plus that it plundered from Mosul banks.
Yet we need not panic, either. While ISIS rule will be hell for those unfortunate Iraqis who fall under it, ISIS, even with a fattened purse, remains a relatively small guerrilla force.
Holding territory and governing are not tasks to which it is well adapted, and doing so will require it to institutionalize and localize in ways that may render it more accountable — and vulnerable. It will, in short, gain an address, something it has avoided to date to great advantage.
More to the point, however, we must realize that the shifts that have been convulsing the Arab world and wider Middle East since 2011, once hopefully termed “the Arab Spring,” reflect forces that are beyond our control, and that rightfully should be resolved within the region by its own peoples.
ISIS will ultimately fail not because we bomb it into oblivion, but because Arabs will reject its particularly inhumane and harsh perversion of Islam — a religion that was founded on principles of mercy, justice and equality.
Frankly, we have only begun to tally the real costs of the so-called “War on Terror,” of which these two wars were ostensibly centerpieces.
Thanks to Edward Snowden, we are now beginning to appreciate the extent to which we have disfigured ourselves as a society to “fight terror.”
Our political class as an entirety — executive, legislative and judiciary — has joined in the banishment of privacy, as if a value venerated by our founders as a fundamental of a free society were no more than a fleeting luxury.
While Obama may have extricated us from two failed wars, he has much to atone for in his promotion of secrecy and the unchecked rise of our current security state.
George Bisharat is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law. Readers may write him at Hastings, 200 McAllister Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94102; email: bisharatuchastings.edu.