A pandemic is sweeping the U.S. and Middle East. Coronavirus is spreading among military personnel, undercutting readiness.
Washington is broke. Congress voted an emergency stimulus package that costs 40 percent as much as the federal government spent last year. Even before that the federal government was running trillion-dollar annual deficits.
After two decades of conflict in the Mideast, there are more terrorists than when Washington started. Moving a second aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf failed to enhance deterrence against Iran, contrary to the Pentagon’s expectation.
This would be a good time to stop America’s endless wars, as the president has promised.
Yet his officials, apparently led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, have proposed waging war against the Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia whose leader Washington killed in a drone strike in January. The result could trigger conflict with the Baghdad government, renewed civil war in Iraq, and formal hostilities with Iran. Are the president’s aides mad?
The U.S. presence in Iraq is growing increasingly untenable. Reported the Washington Post: “Iran-backed militias are becoming more audacious in attacking U.S. personnel in Iraq, with rocket strikes against military bases occurring more frequently and, for the first time, in broad daylight. U.S. officials say they are receiving near-daily reports of ‘imminent’ attacks planned against U.S.-linked military or diplomatic facilities.”
The administration continues to talk tough. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker said it would “take what steps that we see necessary” to retaliate. But Washington appears to have given up. After rocket attacks on Camp Taji last month, U.S. forces targeted the Kataib Hezbollah, with no firm proof, but a strong presumption, of guilt. That bombardment killed Iraqi soldiers and policemen, angering Baghdad. Assailants unknown then launched two more rounds of rockets, and the U.S. did nothing — other than pull American personnel out of three of the military’s eight Iraqi installations.
Such assaults are hard to prevent. Harder to assign guilt. And harder still to deter, especially since the latest grievance, the January killing of founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, is still fresh. An anonymous administration official told the Washington Post, “Kataib Hezbollah wants to pay back the Americans for the killing of Muhandis, absolutely.”
Administration hawks reportedly have proposed a large troop build-up and offensive in Iraq against the militia — in effect to force the Iraqis to allow America to stay after their parliament voted for the U.S. to leave. It is a mad plan. Washington already fought two rounds of a bloody, messy, destructive insurgency. The first was the aftermath of defenestrating Saddam Hussein. The second was to destroy the Islamic State, which preyed on Iraqi weakness and sectarian hatreds to establish a caliphate, or quasi–nation state.
What would a third round do? Force Baghdad to allow America to protect it. ISIS will persist as an ideology/theology with adherents capable of organizing and doing harm well into the future. But its power has been broken, and it is opposed by virtually every government and movement in the Middle East, including Iraq and Iran. Why should U.S. troops continue doing a job that is the locals’ responsibility?
Indeed, Washington likely would end up fighting Iraqi as well as militia forces. Baghdad officials, including military officers, were outraged at the killing of their own personnel and reiterated the demand that America leave. Plenty of Iraqis dislike and distrust the Iranians, who have gained disproportionate influence in their neighbor’s affairs. Nevertheless, cultural, historical, and religious ties remain significant. Most important, Iran will always be next door. The U.S. is far away and will eventually lose interest.
Baghdad’s real interest is evident from the fact that it does not stop the rocket attacks. An administration official complained to the Washington Post, “This has been going on for several months. We complain, the government doesn’t do anything. The militias do it again, the government doesn’t do anything.” Which should come as no surprise. An Iraqi military officer said bluntly, “Let’s be honest. If the militias want to attack the bases we can’t stop them.”
Targeting the Shia militias would risk fanning sectarian fires anew. Recent demonstrations have attacked the country’s divisive politics, but U.S. military attacks as much on Iraq’s sovereignty as Kataib Hezbollah’s positions have renewed criticism of America. Practicing a Saudi-first policy has put Washington in the Sunni camp. Launching a campaign against Shia militiamen in a majority Shia country allied with the leading Shia-majority country would be like tossing hand grenades into an ammo dump.
Worse is the possibility of spreading the conflict to Iran. Tehran would lose any war but could wreak havoc with missile attacks and asymmetric action. Moreover, like sanctions, war is likely to turn people against America, wrecking any prospect for reform at home. No one would gain from a regional conflagration damaging oil production and deterring tanker traffic. The U.S. victory would be a costly, Pyrrhic affair.
Notable is the fact that Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley opposed proposals for war, which they believed would destabilize the Middle East. Those closest to the possible conflict appear to most oppose it. The New York Times reported that “In a blunt memo last week, the [Iraq] commander, Lt. Gen. Robert P. White, wrote that a new military campaign would also require thousands more American troops be sent to Iraq and divert resources from what has been the primary American military mission there: training Iraqi troops to combat the Islamic State.”
U.S. policy toward Iraq has been one blunder after another for almost two decades. That continued in January, when the administration decided to assassinate Iranian Quds commander Qasem Soleimani. Also killed, apparently as collateral damage, was Muhandis. After the round of strikes last month Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of United States Central Command, allowed, with studied understatement, that tensions “have actually not gone down” since the January strike. Indeed.
The administration should bring American forces home. They are not needed. They are not wanted. They are under attack. The region no longer matters: it has lost its energy stranglehold while Israel dominates its neighbors militarily. The Saudis are more foe than friend and should defend themselves. It is time to finish the endless wars, as the president has promised.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.
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