Go to War in Iraq, Mr. President, or Get Out


President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 18, 2014. Taking a two-day break from summer vacation, President Barack Obama met with top advisers at the White House Monday to review developments in Iraq and in racially charged Ferguson, Mo., two trouble spots where Obama has ordered his administration to intervene.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As an Iraq vet, I know what it’s like to be part of a hopeless mission in pursuit of a muddy strategy. And that is what you are doing now, Mr. President, by pretending that 400 or 500 more American “advisers” and “trainers” can make any more difference in Iraq than the previous contingent you sent in.

My brain is forever seared with an image from my first day in Ramadi back in 2005, the sight of a dying U.S. soldier, blood running out of the back of his head from shrapnel following a rocket attack. I can still hear the blast of the IED as it rocked my vehicle on my first patrol outside the wire in Baghdad in 2006. And I will never forget the sick, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I realized that the plan my platoon was tasked to execute was a stale, defunct mission in support of a strategy disconnected from the reality on the ground.

Now we are at that point again. Mr. President, nine months ago I wrote that your strategy lacked clarity, that it was unrealistic to believe that air power alone would destroy the Islamic State and cynical to tell the American people that there would be “no boots on the ground.” Our boots on the ground have doubled to approximately 3,500 since then.

Let’s not be fooled again. It makes no sense to promise to build a nation for a people who hate one another more than the marauding invaders raping and pillaging their cities. It is equally foolhardy to promise to degrade and destroy an organized, committed army using trainers and advisors or air power alone. Once and for all let’s recognize that training and advising is a service, not a strategy.

The defense experts (and apparently the editorial board of the Washington Post) love to play at war and shrewdly offer the advise/train model as a viable alternative to full-scale war or complete withdrawal. This mild, middle option that keeps war off the front pages is seductive in a society in which less than one percent of the population serve in the military. But in this case, such a plan puts our troops at risk and only serves to gloss over the underlying problems of a people that won’t police their own.

There is in fact no middle ground in combat or warfare. We either need to go to war with the Islamic State, employing overwhelming force and the full commitment of our citizens and our Congress, or we need to get out altogether and resort to a national strategy of offshore containment. The latter course is a respectable alternative; it is not retreat, withdrawal or isolationism.

Yet too many people want to pretend that illusory middle ground exists, and I fear you are listening to them. The Washington Post recently took you to task for “adopting a defensive crouch” in Iraq and for “blaming the Iraqis for failing to defend the city of Ramadi.” The editorial board called on you to send more advisors and deploy troops further to the front. The Post is hardly alone; the experts, the talking heads and armchair generals are all saying we have to escalate. They are saying that you must embed troops at the battalion and even company level and allow forward observers and JTACs (who direct in air attacks from the ground) to be deployed to control air strikes from forward positions.

The plan didn’t work last summer, when you deployed troops into the Middle East and ordered an air campaign and advising mission with the hope of leading a coalition to rise up to degrade and destroy ISIS. After thousands of civilian deaths and billions of dollars spent, ISIS has only expanded its territory, upgraded its capabilities and succeeded in inspiring combatants to attack innocent civilians in our homeland and in the homelands of our allies.

Despite this failure, however, you deserve respect for having the guts to hold the line and rigorously enforce policies that are keeping our troops alive and away from the front line. The Washington Post is worried about Iraqis but I appreciate that you are concerned about the lives of your own men and women. Mr. President, I believe that the destruction of the Islamic State and the full-scale U.S. military engagement this would require is a valid policy objective. But I would also understand if we stayed with the current situation. In fact, I would prefer this to endangering more advisors at the front for no reason at all.

In that scenario, someone is likely to die. In the end, Americans dying to defeat ISIS could make sense, but our guys dying as they provide support for Iranian-backed Shia militias or for Iraqis unwilling to fight for their own country? No way.

Mr. President, I can’t describe for you how proud I was of your predecessor as commander-in-chief when he made the courageous choice to do what he believed was right, against the advice of the talking heads and politicians, and lay out a bold and aggressive plan to “surge” troops and take the fight to the enemy.

Your moment of decision has arrived as well. You clearly believe ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States and value American lives more than victory over ISIS. Further, it seems clear that you would rather lose Iraqi cities than risk American bombs killing Iraqi civilians. I think both of these are valid positions and can be translated into practical policies with clear objectives.

But you must say so. As our commander-in-chief, you need to decide what you believe is right and act. If you tell us to surge and you allow us to truly degrade and destroy ISIS we will follow you and history will probably be kind. But Mr. President, if you believe that the right thing is to keep our soldiers and marines out of harm’s way, if you see more strategic value in containing ISIS and preserving our troops to fight another day, then let the talking heads, the think tank experts, the hedging candidates and the editors of the Washington Post be damned.

Be the decider, Mr. President.

Clay Hanna, who served in the U.S. Army from 2003 to 2008, is currently an officer in the Tennessee National Guard.

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