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Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, An Invitation to Collective Suicide

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Let's consider the two parties in Washington. I'm not referring to the Republican and Democratic ones, but our capital's war parties (there being no peace party, of course). They might be labeled the More War Party and the Much (or Much, Much) More War Party. Headed by President Obama, the first is distinctly a minority grouping. In a capital city in which, post-Paris, war seems to be the order of the day, it's the party of relative restraint, as the president has clearly grasped the obvious: for the last 14 years, the more wholeheartedly the U.S. has gone into any situation in the Greater Middle East, militarily speaking, the worse it has turned out.

Having promised to get us out of two wars and being essentially assured of leaving us in at least three (and various other conflicts on the side), he insists that a new invasion or even a large-scale infusion of American troops, aka "boots on the ground," in Syria or Iraq is a no-go for him. The code word he uses for his version of more war -- since less war is simply not an option on that "table" in Washington where all options are evidently kept -- is "intensification." Once upon a time, it might have been called "escalation" or "mission creep." The president has pledged to merely "intensify" the war he's launched, however reluctantly, in Syria and the one he's re-launched in Iraq. This seems to mean more of exactly what he's already ordered into the fray: more air power, more special forces boots more or less on the ground in Syria, more special ops raiders sent into Iraq, and perhaps more military advisers ever nearer to the action in that country as well. This is as close as you're likely to get in present-day America, at least in official circles, to an antiwar position.

In the Much (or Much, Much) More War party, Republicans and Democrats alike are explicitly or implicitly criticizing the president for his "weak" policies and for "leading from behind" against the Islamic State. They propose solutions ranging from instituting "no-fly zones" in northern Syria to truly intensifying U.S. air strikes, to sending in local forces backed and led by American special operators ( la Afghanistan 2001), to sending in far more American troops, to simply putting masses of American boots on the ground and storming the Islamic State's capital, Raqqa. After fourteen years in which so many similar "solutions" have been tried and in the end failed miserably in the Greater Middle East or North Africa, all of it, as if brand new, is once again on that table in Washington.

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Aside from long-shots Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, any candidate likely to enter the Oval Office in January 2017 will be committed to some version of much-more war, including obviously Donald Trump, Marco ("clash of civilizations") Rubio, and Hillary Clinton, who recently gave a hawkish speech at the Council on Foreign Relations on her version of war policy against the Islamic State. Given that stark reality, this is a perfect moment to explore what much-more war (call it, in fact, "World War IV") might actually mean and how it might play out in our world -- and TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich is the perfect person to do it. Tom

Beyond ISIS
The Folly of World War IV
By Andrew J. Bacevich

Assume that the hawks get their way -- that the United States does whatever it takes militarily to confront and destroy ISIS. Then what?

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Answering that question requires taking seriously the outcomes of other recent U.S. interventions in the Greater Middle East. In 1991, when the first President Bush ejected Saddam Hussein's army from Kuwait, Americans rejoiced, believing that they had won a decisive victory. A decade later, the younger Bush seemingly outdid his father by toppling the Taliban in Afghanistan and then making short work of Saddam himself -- a liberation twofer achieved in less time than it takes Americans to choose a president. After the passage of another decade, Barack Obama got into the liberation act, overthrowing the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in what appeared to be a tidy air intervention with a clean outcome. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton memorably put it, "We came, we saw, he died." End of story.

In fact, subsequent events in each case mocked early claims of success or outright victory. Unanticipated consequences and complications abounded. "Liberation" turned out to be a prelude to chronic violence and upheaval.

Indeed, the very existence of the Islamic State (ISIS) today renders a definitive verdict on the Iraq wars over which the Presidents Bush presided, each abetted by a Democratic successor. A de facto collaboration of four successive administrations succeeded in reducing Iraq to what it is today: a dysfunctional quasi-state unable to control its borders or territory while serving as a magnet and inspiration for terrorists.

The United States bears a profound moral responsibility for having made such a hash of things there. Were it not for the reckless American decision to invade and occupy a nation that, whatever its crimes, had nothing to do with 9/11, the Islamic State would not exist. Per the famous Pottery Barn Rule attributed to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, having smashed Iraq to bits a decade ago, we can now hardly deny owning ISIS.

That the United States possesses sufficient military power to make short work of that "caliphate" is also the case. True, in both Syria and Iraq the Islamic State has demonstrated a disturbing ability to capture and hold large stretches of desert, along with several population centers. It has, however, achieved these successes against poorly motivated local forces of, at best, indifferent quality.

In that regard, the glibly bellicose editor of the Weekly Standard, William Kristol, is surely correct in suggesting that a well-armed contingent of 50,000 U.S. troops, supported by ample quantities of air power, would make mincemeat of ISIS in a toe-to-toe contest. Liberation of the various ISIS strongholds like Fallujah and Mosul in Iraq and Palmyra and Raqqa, its "capital," in Syria would undoubtedly follow in short order.

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In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, the American mood is strongly trending in favor of this sort of escalation. Just about anyone who is anyone -- the current occupant of the Oval Office partially excepted -- favors intensifying the U.S. military campaign against ISIS. And why not? What could possibly go wrong? As Kristol puts it, "I don't think there's much in the way of unanticipated side effects that are going to be bad there."

It's an alluring prospect. In the face of a sustained assault by the greatest military the world has ever seen, ISIS foolishly (and therefore improbably) chooses to make an Alamo-like stand. Whammo! We win. They lose. Mission accomplished.

Of course, that phrase recalls the euphoric early reactions to Operations Desert Storm in 1991, Enduring Freedom in 2001, Iraqi Freedom in 2003, and Odyssey Dawn, the Libyan intervention of 2011. Time and again the unanticipated side effects of U.S. military action turned out to be very bad indeed. In Kabul, Baghdad, or Tripoli, the Alamo fell, but the enemy dispersed or reinvented itself and the conflict continued. Assurances offered by Kristol that this time things will surely be different deserve to be taken with more than a grain of salt. Pass the whole shaker.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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