When Will We Ever Learn?

Now that Republican presidential candidates are increasingly lining up behind the idea of reengaging Sunni militants with ground forces in Iraq and Syria–Jeb Bush just expressed an ambition to become the third politician named Bush to send U.S. troops into Iraq–you have to wonder all over again if these people are completely immune from learning anything about the American experience there other than the belief that if we had never withdraw troops we would have to send them back in again!

Kevin Drum’s informed exasperation is entirely appropriate here:

[I]t’s astonishing—or depressing, take your pick—how soon we forget what we learned just a few years ago. Should we send a massive force into Anbar to crush ISIS once and for all? Well, we’ve tried that before. Remember? We sent a massive force into Iraq and, sure enough, we toppled Saddam Hussein’s regular army units pretty quickly. Then, despite a huge military presence, the country fell apart. The Sunni insurgency lasted for years before it was finally beaten back. Then the Shiite government of Iraq decided that fealty to its Shia supporters was more important than uniting their country, and before long Anbar was in flames again, this time with ISIS leading the charge.

You want to take out ISIS? Me too. But if you want to do it fast in order to demonstrate how tough you are, it’s going to require 100,000 troops or more; it will cost hundreds or thousands of American lives; and the bill will run to tens of billions of dollars. Remember Fallujah? It took the better part of a year and nearly 15,000 troops to take a medium-sized city held by a few thousand poorly trained militants. Now multiply that by ten or so. And multiply the casualties by 10 or 20 or 30 too. This isn’t two armies facing off on the field of battle. It’s house-to-house fighting against local insurgents, which isn’t something we’re especially good at.

Still, we could do it. The problem is that President Obama is right: unless we leave a permanent occupying force there, it will just blow up yet again—especially if we take Ted Cruz’s advice and decide we don’t really care about civilian casualties. Having defeated Al-Qaeda 2.0, we’ll end up with Al-Qaeda 3.0. Aside from a permanent occupation, the only thing that can stop this is an Iraqi government that takes Sunni grievances seriously and is genuinely willing to govern in a non-sectarian way.

This isn’t just a guess. We went through this just a few years ago. But everyone seems to have forgotten it already. Just send in the troops and crush the bastards! That worked great against the Nazis. It doesn’t work so great in Iraq.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.