Michael Wolraich's picture

    Half-Assed: Why America Cannot Stop the Slaughter in Iraq

    As ISIS pursues its genocidal dreams in Syria and Iraq, Bruce Levine asks, "whether we as human beings living in the most powerful nation in the world can stand by yet again and do nothing -- as thousands or tens of thousands of innocent human beings  are slaughtered."

    The question conceals a heavy premise: that we have the power to stop the slaughter if we choose to exercise it.

    I do not deny the premise, at least in principle. If we unleash our full military and economic might, we can surely defeat ISIS forces and build stable, peaceful states in Iraq and Syria. But full mobilization and massive nation-building projects are not realistic options in the current political environment. We may muster the will for limited military operations in Iraq, but we're unwilling to do what it takes to succeed. Consequently, our efforts to stop the slaughter are doomed to fail and may make the situation even worse.

    Let me begin with a personal analogy. I used to wrestle when I was a kid. In junior high, I was awful; I lost nearly every match. When I reached high school, my new coach gave me some sage advice. When you try to take someone down, he told me, don't go in half-assed. If you're cautious, you'll never get past your opponent's defenses. Heeding his counsel, I started hurling myself at my opponent full-speed. I was fast, and I could usually take him down on the first try. That year, I won nearly every match.

    One of the problems with America's modern military adventures is that we invariably go in half-assed. Fearful of losing American soldiers, killing foreign civilians, and spending limited resources, we go in too late with too few and pull out too fast.

    Our concern for lost lives and wasted resources are very real and very important, but they undermine are best (and worst) intentions. The last time we unleashed our full military strength was 1941. Our victory over the Axis powers and the subsequent Marshall Plan testify to what we can achieve when we commit ourselves. Since then, we've been far more cautious. Deceiving ourselves with fantasies of easy victory against weaker opponents, we keep pursuing half-efforts and keep getting burned--Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, and so on. Too often, we leave the field in a worse state than when we started.

    I fear that the current crisis in Iraq is no different. While I agree that we have a moral imperative to stop genocide when we have the power, I don't believe that we can save the world with airstrikes, drones, special ops, or limited ground troops. To succeed, it's not enough to temporarily stop ISIS's advance. The instability and violence in Syria and Iraq, not to mention Libya and other warzones, will continue regardless of whether ISIS captures Baghdad, and the dead will continue to pile up.

    Frankly, we're simply not prepared to make the necessary investment at this point. It would require an extended military presence and state-building effort much bigger than the Iraq wars, 1 or 2. If we're unwilling to make that investment, I believe that limited military intervention is likely to waste more lives and more money while accomplishing little more than to set the stage for yet another brutal civil war.

    So while we are capable of stopping the slaughter in principle, we cannot do so in practice. As heart-wrenching as it is to stand by while ISIS slaughters every imagined "infidel" in reach, I believe we must seriously reassess our approach to global intervention. Moral imperative is not sufficient. Military capacity is not sufficient. We must also be willing to invest whatever it takes to achieve a comprehensive military victory and successful reconstruction.



    Thanks for responding Michael.  I tried to focus on genocide isolated from other factors that might cause us to become more and more involved militarily, but it's hard to do it when there are more "traditional" national security interests at this point.

    Interesting and perhaps not to profound, but it seems to me that most folks, yourself as well I think, are willing to accept the limited air strikes that we are conducting now, and which seem to be allowing the Iraqi and Kurdish forces to regroup and consolidate their respective defenses.  And, if what we're reading is correct (and that has to be a big if), we're saving lives.  

    And what about if those limited air strikes while we deliberated a bit at home and coordinated more with our partners in NATO and the Middle East?  Because I do agree with you that ISIS will not stop being a problem until it is destroyed.  I have two principal questions at this point I guess: (1) Are we getting the real story over there; and (2) does ISIS pose a threat to the national security of the United States.  If yes to both, then I would agree with you that half-assed measures won't work to destroy ISIS.  Of course, once destroyed there's another power vacuum created. . .I know.



    Sorry, this time I'm really and truly finished.  Here's something even more useful I think. Check out the websites of your own congress critter (h/t AA)  and senators.  Our Canadian lurkers and friends can see what's being said up in Ottawa. Look for what, if anything, he or she has said about what we've been talking about for a couple of weeks now.  And post it.  

    That, I'm just speculating, could be food for thought, and in any event is an easy thing to do.  How many haven't said much?  Penny to each for completion of the homework assignment! :)

    Michael, It's going to be a hectic day for me and I think people have read more than enough of what I think.  So on the way out to my office I was thinking of ways that a Doc or someone might try and get us to analyze what the various options.  So, with deep humility to the real folk in this milieu, here's a model that might help folks think about what is going on Let's call it the Four Questions of bslev wink:

    1. What is the best case scenario if we commit to doing nothing will leave us vulnerable to the possibility of mission creep -- again -- in the Levant?  Presumably that would involve an elimination of the air strikes, and some accommodation of the need to keep embassy staff, etc with security realities?

    2. Turn it around, and play out what my senior partner and mentor likes to call the "parade of horribles" if we withdraw completely from the region militarily?

    3. What is the best case scenario that would attach to granting the president full discretion to do whatever he felt it was necessary to do to defeat ISIS in the Levant (edited to add), and assume that the president does just that?

    4. And what are the parade of horribles going full bore?

    My hunch is the model could help us figure out where we should be as measured against these four extremes -- or something.

    Two other quick points and then I bow out gracefully and with appreciation for the opportunity to participate here:

    1. Whatever one feels about what is happening now, he or she should support the president to the extent that he cannot just run in with guns blazing without careful and deliberate considerations of models far more complex than the Four Questions of bslev.  This is a moving target, but it requires deliberation.

    2. Progressives, don't cede your formation of the narrative that will inform the decision makers.  Disagree with me, call me a whatever, but please, please, please, particularly with social media for all and places like this for the readers, do not cede the narrative that will influence whether and where and how much shooting there may very well be.

    Other than that, your book, which I am nearly finished with, reads like a novel that you would curl up with and tune out the entire world and just melt into the story. Damn good history stuff too.

    I'm out.  Cheers.


    Imagining worst case scenarios is useful for preparation and risk assessment. It's not a good guide for deciding whether to go to war. Remember Vietnam and the so-called domino effect?

    Imagining best case scenarios is even more dangerous. Remember Iraq and the cheering throngs who were supposed to welcome us? Or the neo-con dream of a democratic domino effect in the Middle East?

    PS Snuffing fires before they become infernos is laudable in theory. The problem is that our limited interventions tend to spark more fires than they snuff.

    PPS Sorry for the short response. My day is even more hectic than yours.

    It doesn't look like it will take a massive effort to prevent ISIS from conquering Iraq. The air strikes seem to be doing that.

    Or they are just going to ground, fading back into the general populations. An unsettling thought considering how many British citizens are part of it.


    I knew that there was a non-zero number of British citizens in ISIS, but do we have a sense of that number being larger than, say, 10? (I might be revealing my complete ignorance on the matter here.)

    Not sure. Really just echoing concerns of a friend in Britain who was just feeling safer from IRA domestic terrorism and now ISIS turns up.



    I'm not entirely opposed to limited intervention for the sake of short-term, achievable goals. The missions to save the Yazdi refugees and help the Kurds recapture the Mosul dam were effective uses of American airpower. We just have to avoid confusing these narrow missions with broader goals like destroying ISIS or ending the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, for that's the path to escalation and likely failure.

    If it escalates and drags us into another quagmire, it will be an error. But if the war doesn't escalate, it might be justified---repeat, "might".

    Wolraich's comment makes a big assumption that there is nothing effective that can be done.  American action at least contributed to relief for the Yazidi people.  The issue becomes how success gets defined.  We will not be able to affect the underline dynamic catalyzing the violence.  We can stop an ongoing genocide.  No one is currently suggesting nation-building as a goal for American involvement.   Our efforts at nation-building in Iraq have been naive and a deep failure not to mention a tragic loss of American lives and treasure.  The best we can hope for is this experience to be instructive for future decisions.

    What's interesting about the current situation is that our national security and humanitarian interests converge on stopping ISIL.  While I share Levine's sentiment about stopping the horrors of genocide, I also identify with the desire to minimize involvement in every foreign conflict.  The challenge is to identify criteria that might make it easier for America to get involved in stopping genocide in discrete situations.  It has not been enough to publicize the human tragedy to catalyze American action.Examples of criteria include:  

    1.  Does the conflict meet the accepted of definition of genocide?

    2.  Does the conflict affect our national security interest?

    3.  Would discrete, limited action help end the genocide?  

    Absent the possibility of framing American action to stop a genocide as discrete and compelling, It will be difficult to gain public support for intervention in these heartbreaking and unfortunately persistently recurring episodes.

    What would you be doing?

    Gather the best facts to inform the criteria and make a cut.

    Do you think that is not being done now?

    Mr. Eisenberg, for the record, is one of my oldest and dearest friends (we met in law school)--he was the half Israeli Jewish guy from Minneapolis who spoke Swedish, and who told me on the first day of law school during one of those awkward "mixers" for new students that he really didn't know if had any interest in being there.  We've been arguing ever since.  From Jeff, who now resides somewhere 'inside the Beltway" and who is still an avid Twins fan (we were last together for a Twins/Yankee game in NYC in June and it's his fault it's been that long), I learned that people do not wear their winter coats in Madison in October, and that when in doubt on the evening before a final exam, stay up all night and read a novel.

    For all of the foregoing reasons, Mr. Eisenberg is someone who completely lacks credibility and should be addressed accordingly.  At the threshold, this is someone who has for whatever reason put up with me for all these years. My experience is that he is only here to piss me off with his flowery prose.  Don't believe a word he says.

     On the other hand he would be a fun guy to have around and don't tell anyone but it would take him about 20 minutes to identify and deconstruct every argument I have ever made at dagblog about Israel.  He's my buddy and I won't embarrass him and say what I may have said in the abstract on here, but life buddies are often more important than seen -- or something.

    Thanks Jeff.



    he is only here to piss me off with his flowery prose. 

    Say it's not so, joe (hope you're just being sassy.)  I recall you persuaded Aaron Carine to start commenting here from time to time and I am grateful for that, and hope Jeff will now, too.  Even if he doesn't want to talk to the rest of us and only you...

    Totally sassy AA.  I'll work on him a bit.  I can always bribe him with Twins tix or something. 


    Thanks Jeff, I confess that my blog post presented the question as either-or. In the comment thread, I expressed a more nuanced perspective according to which pursuit of narrow goals, such as relief for the Yazidi, is achievable and laudable (so long as we avoid mission-creep).

    In short, I agree with you, though I would add a caveat. Narrow "framing" too often masks a more ambitious agenda. The Iraq War mission was also narrowly framed: neutralize the WMDs. We know how that went. Similarly, stopping genocide may easily morph into destroying ISIS, which many interventionists are already demanding.

    It's beyond the demand stage at this point based on what is coming out of the White House, and beyond the humanitarian focus as well.  Next question is when our elected congressional representatives chime in. My bet is "authorization" vote is taken with courage and with impeccable timing -- after November 5th.  

    I have no skin in the game when it comes to defining the president"s performance and/or legacy but The GOPs lack of leadership meme has grown tiresome and beside the point already I think.  And the  president seems to be back in stride and deliberating appropriately.  The real and genuine concerns are reflected by folks here and elsewhere who ask:  Who the F is on first and what's that guy from the other team doing in our dugout, and how the hell do we end this thing . . . ever.  


    No, no, no.  What's on second, the guy in the dugout?  That's "Habib".

    Re, your summary: I believe we must seriously reassess our approach to global intervention. Moral imperative is not sufficient. Military capacity is not sufficient. Military capacity is not sufficient. We must also be willing to invest whatever it takes to achieve a comprehensive military victory and successful reconstruction.

    Ok, the latest news that I just posted, about both Iraq and Somalia, has clarified for me what I have been thinking about the debates the last month or so on this site.

    I think a lot of members here, including both Michaels, still have a bit of Bush derangement syndrome. Obama has been president for quite some time now, it should be clear what his foreign policy is.

    He  would not at all agree with what you say here. He is an interventionist. About terrorism. He means to intervene against terrorism, everywhere he can where he thinks it will have some effect.  He thinks drones are the most excellent tool ever invented.  Time and time again he has shown he thinks that we should use our superior and expensive military might whenever we can while trying to get others to do the boots on the ground and possible quagmire stuff. Where the others are the U.N., or NATO or France or locals. And the only boots on the ground that are used when necessary are special forces or C.I.A.

    Many here continually argue as if Obama is going to do the same things Bush did. Strange for people who were big fans of Obama for president. Strange especially because he has been doing exactly what he promised to do when he originally campaigned for president, he has been remarkably consistent that way. The sole place he veered off the track he promised in his foreign policy white papers when he first ran for president is some of his decisions about Afghanistan.

    Again, he is not George Bush. and he is not a neo-con. He doesn't believe in nation building. But the ironic thing is that he actually does seem believe in  the whole "U.S.A. #1!"thing  just like lots of those talk show radio hosts that hate him so much. I.E., we are both the most powerful and the best nation in the world and we are going to use that sometimes. And not only for clear cut self-defense. Sometimes in a very realpolitik manner, other times for moral imperative. He seems to do the moral imperative thing only when he has decided that the risk is a "no brainer," as I think he said about Libya. (Almost like the opposite of nation building.)  He will not do it when the risk is high (almost the opposite of nation building.)

    He does seem to apply moral judgment when executing individual actors that he thinks are a danger to the U.S. Indeed, he seems to be able to order that easily without any loss of sleep. I can see in this someone who does believe that a person or a group can be not just a danger, but truly be evil.

    He will intervene in what most would call civil war situations if he thinks the intervention can be a "no brainer." Again, no nation building, nowhere, no how. This whole approach is very broad. Look for example, at Egypt, where his team ended up supporting the elected Muslim Brotherhood longer than many of the Egyptians did, thinking that they would slowly evolve and change.

    Mainly what I get frustrated by is that very intelligent and knowledgeable people seem to still be obsessed with basically arguing against George Bush's counter-terrorism policy and foreign policy. And with that of neo-liberal foreign policy theorists who lean in a direction similar to George Bush.

    How about looking at Obama's actual policies and debating those instead? They really look very different from Bush's to me and we've had them for a good long time now. We've intervened with our military might all around the world while he was president,  how come we fixate on the old Bush neo-con arguments about nation building, etc. Obama doesn't do that. He said he wasn't going to do that. And he hasn't done that. He's done many other interventions, mainly against non-state actors and sometimes in support of international coalitions when there were uprisings against governments.

    Have any of them become quagmires? All depends upon how you define quagmire. Certainly I think one could say that our nation and the world's counter-terrorism fight has become a decades long "quagmire"....

    P.S. Wikipedia has a good refresher on the question of "what is the Obama doctrine?" That there's no easy answer to that question is, I think, represented by the fact that Wikipedia editors think the article needs cleaning up...

    I will just pick out one of the President's lines from the article:

    when asked the question about himself at one of the Democratic presidential debates in March, Obama answered that his doctrine was "not going to be as doctrinaire as the Bush doctrine, because the world is complicated." He added that the United States would have to "view our security in terms of a common security and a common prosperity with other peoples and other countries."[11] Later this doctrine was elaborated on as "a doctrine that first ends the politics of fear and then moves beyond a hollow, sloganeering 'democracy promotion' agenda in favor of 'dignity promotion,'" that would target the conditions that promoted anti-Americanism and prevented democracy.[12

    and this on Iraq and genocide:

    In an article in The Providence Journal from August 28, 2007, James Kirchick used the term in a derogatory sense, and argued that the Obama Doctrine could be summarised as: "The United States will remain impassive in the face of genocide." This critique was based on an interview Obama had given to the Associated Press on July 21, where he said that "the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems" and that "preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn't a good enough reason to keep U.S. forces there."[8] Hilary Bok, guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic's The Daily Dish, refuted Kirchick's representation of Obama's foreign policy views as a distortion. Bok pointed to Obama's use of anti-genocide activist Samantha Power as a political adviser, and to several interviews the candidate had given expressing concern for the situation in Darfur and elsewhere.[9] Later, in a presidential debate with John McCain, Obama stated that the U.S. occasionally would have to "consider it as part of our interests" to carry out humanitarian interventions.[10]

    But there's plenty of other grist for the mill there...

    Was Libya really a "no brainer"? (perhaps you meant to say that it was carried out with a minimal amount of brain input?)


    I say this as one who has, in the past, seen the Libyan intervention as perhaps the thin narrow wedge of burgeoning UN sovereignty, so I am implicitely conflicted.


    Two problems seem to have arisin in Libya, on the way to the new millenial international world order.


    One, the immediate "mission creep" from R2P to regime change.


    Two, the failure of the internationalist coalition to provide any sort of follow-on law and order so as to prevent the epoch of the militias that has given us both a dead ambassador and the flood of previously Libyan owned weapons into Africa (eg Mali, Algeria (the gas center seizure) and, of course, Syria/Iraq (we'll need a new contraction, kinda like Afpaq)

    O/T (aside to DoubleA) I had occasion just now to review a little chat you and I had re:the morphing of tobacco into heroin (vis-a-vis public policy) and, of course, since then we have the escalation of enforcement to lethal force (Eric Garner, killed while trying to escape from the charge of  purveying untaxed tobacco...)

    It really does seem sometimes that heroin is slightly more acceptable.

    A few years back the bodega on the corner was shut down for selling cigs without the proper tax stamps. It was a serious raid with several cars of agents. And they didn't open again for like half a year.

    I wonder if it follows that legalizing marijuana everywhere may not be the panacea that many presume. When there's major tax dollars being collected on something, there's a huge incentive to get overly serious about enforcement.and those doing "black market" may end up as demonized as when it was illegal?

    Also, this.

    I was offering a general criticism of America's post-WWII military policy. In the current context, the criticism applies primarily to hawkish Obama critics demanding strikes against ISIS. Obama has been less militarily ambitious than many of his predecessors, which I appreciate. That said, Obama has also engaged in some half-assed military adventures, such as the Libyan airstrikes, and he nearly sent us into Syria.

    The difference between 1941 and the present is back then Germany looked as it were going to conquer and control the entire European continent and Japan the entire Pacific west of Hawaii. So an all out effort was started once Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese... do or die ... was what drove the nation. Much of our money and commerce was invested in Europe and the Pacific so any political turmoil would have had a significant impact in our financial markets.


    The Korea war, Vietnam war and currently troubles in the Middle East doesn't have that much impact on our commerce or financial markets so less attention is paid. It would be better to classify these military actions as police actions which require fewer resources and personnel as well as concerns over fatalities and reconstruction efforts. They were suppose to be quick and dirty police actions, but ended up costing more money and lives because they underestimated the opposition they would be facing ... war on a budget.


    The Middle East has nothing of value for America to expend resources on ... we're not that invested in the region to mount a full fledged war footing. Point being, how many parents are willing to allow their children to run off to war and die in the Middle East ?... for what purpose? what would their deaths gain for America? how much would it cost ? and for how long ?


    Simply put, Americans are more than willing to die for a cause, spend billions to trillions of dollars and take as much time as is necessary into an effort so long as there's something financially and material to be gained.


    The only way public opinion could be turned would be if ISIS followed the same path as the Muslims had when they began to spread the word of Koran ... conquering North Africa, up through Spain and pushing up into France, then through Greece up into Bulgaria, Romania toward Vienna in Austria. 


    So as long as they are content to remain in the Middle East, they pose no threat.


    The flip side of the coin would be republicans in Congress who would see a full fledged war in the Middle East as the key to unraveling The New Deal and all social benefit programs as a necessary war effort public sacrifice. In other words, going to war just to cut social spending programs and regulatory Agency budgets they don't like without raise taxes.


    What many people fail to acknowledge is once the Soviet Union collapsed, all the money, equipment and real estate automatically became a Peace Dividend. The US auctioned it all off and used the proceed to shore up the deficit and plow newly released revenue streams to flow back into public services and works. So too did our Allies. The money once allocated for defense against the Soviet threat is now intermingled with other government services the public uses and relies on. So any new escalation of military functions, resources and so forth will have to come from new revenue resources which republicans are reluctant to consider.


    With our current political problems; political factions are seeking to unravel 100 years of  progressive legislation. ... does Unreasonable Men ring a bell??? ... one can only sit back and watch because our legislative process is too busy chasing its' tail to be functional.

    Iraq is rich in resources. When Maliki, (with the support of Putin), is removed and stability restored in Iraq;  International trade will resume. The west and it's allies, will gladly support Iraq's geopolitical influence.  

    In fact, days after the U.S. invasion, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told a congressional panel that Iraqi oil revenues would help pay for reconstructing the country, i.e. a cost of the war. “The oil revenue of that country could bring between 50 and 100 billion dollars over the course of the next two or three years. We’re dealing with a country that could really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon,” 


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