LET’S be honest. The United States has crossed the threshold on Iraq. It’s in it to salvage the country — again — using American military might.
But the mission has also, very quickly, grown much bigger in less than two weeks. US warplanes are no longer simply helping create escape routes for the Yazidis or protecting American personnel in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. The US is now directly taking on the world’s most militant extremist group, bombing its positions at the Mosul dam and beyond.
And it’s probably only the beginning.
President Barack Obama implied as much on Monday. The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, is “a savage group that seems willing to slaughter people for no rhyme or reason other than they have not kowtowed,” he told reporters. The United States has a national security interest in making sure “that a group like that is contained, because ultimately they can pose a threat to us.”
The US, however, is already doing more than containing the Islamic State. Washington has now dispatched warplanes to aggressively push back the Islamic State, and the pretense of doing anything less should end.
But so should the illusion about what it will take to achieve that goal. The Operation Without a Name should not be an operation without a well-defined mission—or without a “winning” exit strategy.
Given the human heartache and political headache from the last Iraq intervention, not to mention the mess left behind, Washington needs to be honest upfront in answering basic questions. I’ve spent decades on the ground and in the minutiae of the Middle East, including Iraq, and I can’t yet discern the specifics of Washington’s intentions.
What does “win” actually mean this time around? It’s pretty fuzzy right now. We’re in that feel-good phase of having helped prevent a genocide. But what’s next specifically—and beyond?
An American role is not likely to stop at the Mosul dam, where fighting reportedly resumed a day after Obama said Iraqi forces, with backup from American air power, had reclaimed it.
How long could this mission last, if the Islamic State does not crumble as quickly as the Iraqi army did? I wouldn’t bet on weeks. Or even months. This is a new phase in confronting extremism.
And, most of all, what are the potential unintended consequences?
Jihadists might target Americans
Two leap out: The first and obvious danger is that the Islamic State will target Americans, at home and/or abroad. On Monday, ISIS boasted on its websites, “America will disappear from the map soon on the hands of the knights of al-Khalifa,” a reference to its illusionary caliphate. An English-language video also warned, “We will drown all of you in blood” in retaliation for US air strikes. In its first terrorist act against an American, the Islamic State on Tuesday beheaded photojournalist James Foley, who had been held for 21 months.
The president pledged on Wednesday, “When people harm Americans, anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done.” He vowed to act against the Islamic State.
The second unintended consequence is that, after three years of avoiding intervention, the US may have effectively crossed the threshold on Syria, because the Islamic State will be a threat to minorities and majorities across the region, as well as American interests, if the group holds any territory. The Islamic State controls almost a third of Syria. It has the oil-rich east and is now pushing toward Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the south. The Islamic State has slaughtered or threatened tribes and minorities in Syria too. Even if US military muscle pushes it back into Syria, Islamic State forces remain a broader regional threat.
Tragically, given the political polarization in Washington, especially in an election season, any policy debate over answers to these questions is likely to break down on party lines rather than be framed in terms of what is in everyone’s long-term interests. So we get sound bites rather than solutions to a real national security threat.
Robin Wright, author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World,” is a distinguished scholar at the US Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center.