Here's to hoping that the third time really is the charm.

Next weekend is homecoming at my college alma mater and also my graduating class’ 20th reunion. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it (life is full choices).  I will miss hanging out at the frat house, riding the firetruck and pretending I’m 20 something again (even though I was teen something most of my time there).
A few days ago though I was reminded of a different frat house memory. Early in 1991, I was just getting used to the college thing.  Due to the incredibly long rush and pledging period, I was initiated sometime in November or December, so had just started regularly at the house. The night of January 17th was much like any other (homework, pizza, beer – only for those of age of course!) with the TV running in the background of the common room.  The response to the news breaking in and informing us that Desert Shield had transmogrified into Desert Storm was met with what you would expect from a group of 17-21 year old males: Hell Yeah!  The pictures of cruise missiles launching from the decks of  ships only served to rile us up more.  I was just starting college and had just joined a fraternity and I didn’t think too much about the start of the war.
A few weeks of continued air strikes followed a short ground offensive and the US UN were victorious.  Some said we should have gone all the way to Baghdad, but nonetheless the general feeling was we had accomplished what we set out to do.  The Kuwaiti babies were safely back in their incubators, the Kurds were protected by our air force and sanctions were in place to make sure Saddam couldn’t be bad any more.   It was a short war, but the outcome seemed decisive, so I didn’t think to deeply about its end.
Flash forward to March of 2003.  My wife and I had been married for almost 8 years and we were celebrating the 2nd and 4th birthdays of our son and daughter respectively. With the headlines full of stories about yellow cake and a newly formed axis of evil that was both harboring terrorists and committing human rights violations against its own people, we went back to war in Iraq.  The start of the war looked very much like the last one, with US allied troops “finishing the job” and reaching Baghdad in a handful of weeks.  With the trauma from 9/11 still fresh on my mind (I was in the air that morning) and a young family to raise, I didn’t pay too much attention to the start of a second war in Iraq.
A couple of months later, our commander in chief declared the end of combat operations and it looked like Iraq War 2 would end much like Iraq war 1.  Looks would prove to be deceiving.  Over the next 9 years bases got built, former dictators were tried and hanged and an insurgency was formed and fought against.  When the second war in Iraq ended in December of 2011, I was paying more attention.  The justifications had become shaky, the outcomes were not nearly so decisive and the costs seemed too high.
While it appeared that the drums of war might go silent, they had already started to beat again in Africa a full year before the official end of the second Iraq war.  The Arab Spring lead to some new bosses (some not much different than the old) in Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Egypt (twice).  US forces didn’t get as involved in any of those conflicts as they had in Iraq, with some air strikes in Libya and propaganda support for the rest.
The Arab Spring “contagion” continued to spread and found its way north to Syria.  A combination of events and interests, that I will admit to not fully comprehending, eventually lead to the US Government looking for ways to support the rebels. A red line was drawn and the search for an excuse to go back to war commenced.  An excuse presented itself in the form of a chemical weapons attack a little over a year ago, in August of 2013.  Although the source (and therefore motive?) of that attack would later come in to question, the dogs of war thought they had their bone, but the American people said no, myself included.
While a large minority of Americans celebrated a victory for peace, the hawks went back to work.  They almost got something going in the Ukraine, but couldn’t quite make it happen.  It was a good try, but honestly if there is anything good about the start of Iraq war 3, its that it makes the hawks a little less likely to start something that will get us all nuked.  Then again, maybe Ukraine was just a diversion while enough space and time developed to allow ISIL ISIS IS The Islamic Extremist group formerly known as al Qaeda in Iraq to metastasize in Syria and then bleed (back) over into Iraq.
With a different villain established, the first PR campaign to get us back into a war focused on the plight of the Yazidis, an ethnic group in Northern Iraq that IS was chasing around and killing  (side note: do a google image search for yazidi…how is it that they are so fair complected living in the desert?  Must have great sun screen!).  Another militia that we have labeled as being terrorist actually saved some of them before we could get whipped into a frenzy.  Then there was the news that ISIS might be trying to attack us at home through an alliance with Mexican drug cartels, an interesting historical parallel to one of the story lines used to get us into WWI.  Then there were the beheadings.
Between all of these and I’m sure a few other lines of “reasoning”, we started Iraq war 3 this past Tuesday, this time throwing Syria in for good measure (and despite what the American people thought they had said no to a year ago).  This time I am really paying attention.  What stands out to me the most is the rather apparent inconsistency between what the hawks say they want, what they then do to try to get it and what the results they are likely to get.  Let’s look at these in turn:

  • What they say: we want to degrade and destroy isis.
  • What we do: bomb them back to the stone age (or to the gates of hell).
  • What that will actually get them: there are four ways I can think of to answer this: from a consequential standpoint, from expert opinion, from a purely practical standpoint, and from what previous experience (aka history) tells us.
    • Consequential: To stop ISIS from trying to kill us, the hawks are going to kill them first.  A few days into the bombing, ISIS will not form up in camps out in the desert (that are easy to blow up with cruise missiles) but will fade away and blend into the cities (this is no doubt already in progress if not already done). The hawks will then start bombing the cities and in the process they will create 5 new ISIS fighters for every one they kill.  This happens every time a bomb goes astray or is mis-targeted and kills a civilian.  Every fighting age male relative of that civilian has just that much more incentive to join up with ISIS.  Unfortunately this is already happening too.
    • Expert Opinion: I think this quote (hat tip to the Scott Horton Show for the quote) from a September 2014 report on the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that has never seen a war it didn’t like, sums up the fact that we don’t know how we are going to get what we want:”The situation is so bad and the momentum is so much in the wrong direction that it is impossible to articulate a clear path to the desired end state.” (Side note: this stunning conclusion didn’t prevent them from making a “recommendation to deploy U.S. forces and significant enablers into Iraq and Syria” in the very same report…as I said, they’ve never seen a war they didn’t like.)
    • Practical: There is strong evidence that the core of ISIS is the same group that was leading the insurgency in Iraq, al Qaeda in Iraq.  We put 33,000 extra troops into Iraq to deal with this group in 2008.  We didn’t defeat them then with that size of force (they are still around after all), but we think we that we are going to send in a 5,000 man force that will get a year of training that can no only defeat ISIS, but then pivot and also defeat Assad?
    • Then there is what history tells us: Is Iraq better off now than it was before the first two wars?  What about Libya?  Afghanistan? Somalia?

The inconsistency is apparent.  The actions they are taking won’t can’t get them what they want.  There are things they could do to get what they want.  They could stay out completely.  ISIS is surrounded by groups that hate them.  Assad would have them cleaned out in a month if we’d let him.  The Iranians would probably pitch in, not to mention the Turks.  They could go to the other end of the spectrum too, and go biblical (new or old testament – take your pick) killing every fighting age male that has any potential to ever be interested in ISIS (note: my claim is simply that this would be effective in reaching their stated aims, not moral).  So they are choosing to take a course of action that consequences, experts, practicality and history all tell them will not get them what they say they want.
There are only two conclusions I cam make from this: either those leading us back into another war are unable to see this inconsistency, making them too incompetent to lead, or they see it plainly and are simply lying to us about what they want, making them perhaps too evil to lead.  It’s time to look at what’s being done in your name.  It’s no longer OK to stand by and let those who say they know better to kill people in your name (in the process creating more people that want to kill you).  Doing nothing is the same as telling them its OK.
Its easy to get lost with the who, what, when, where, why and how when the venues and villains keep changing, but the 3rd Iraq war in less than a quarter century is a tremendous opportunity.  It strips away some of the complications of learning new geographies, new histories, and new ethnic/religious/tribal lines that come along with new wars in new countries.  The third time really could be the charm.  The charm that makes enough people see the inconsistencies and decide to do something about it.






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