The Slippery Slope of U.S. Intervention

America's rescue mission in Iraq is going to be messier, longer, and more expensive than the White House wants to admit.

During his recent hour-long interview with the New York Times's Thomas Friedman, President Barack Obama mentioned something in passing when he described the need to be better prepared for post-conflict rebuilding and reconstruction before authorizing an intervention: "Our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do." Note the phrase I've italicized above -- it's an unnoticed but entirely remarkable acknowledgment from the commander-in-chief, because it is directly at odds with what he told the American people prior to, and just after, the start of the Libya intervention in 2011.

On March 21, 2011, Obama announced that the United States would pursue the formation of an international coalition to protect civilians from the security forces of Muammar al-Qaddafi: "I also want to be clear about what we will not be doing.... We are not going to use force to go beyond a well-defined goal -- specifically, the protection of civilians in Libya." One week later, as the first bombs fell, he further described the U.S. mission: "The task that I assigned our forces [is] to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger, and to establish a no-fly zone," the president said. To which he added explicitly: "Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake." That regime change was not the U.S. objective in Libya was repeated by the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon. As the White House spokesman famously argued, when asked why he would not call it a war, "It is a time-limited, scope-limited military action, in concert with our international partners."

As I have pointed out previously, the U.S.-led coalition never imposed a no-fly zone over Libya, nor enforced an arms embargo. It initially did conduct airstrikes against massed Libyan ground forces that threatened civilian populations, and repeatedly attempted to kill Qaddafi by targeting his personal residency with cruise missiles -- including on the second night of the campaign. Once Qaddafi's security forces posed less of a direct threat to civilians in Benghazi -- and, to a lesser extent, Misrata -- NATO openly sided with the rebel forces in every way. This was done by never imposing an arms embargo against the rebels, and by providing tactical intelligence, planning support, and close air support -- culminating with U.S. drone strikes on October 20, 2011, that hit the caravan carrying Qaddafi, after which rebels captured and extrajudicially murdered him.

This delayed admission by President Obama that the Libya intervention's war aims expanded far beyond what he promised provides a useful reference point for citizens sifting through administration officials' various justifications and objectives for the current intervention in Iraq. Indeed, after the president's dramatic declaration on Aug. 7 that "America is coming to help," several policymakers and analysts pointed to the ambiguity of U.S. goals in Iraq, the quickly shifting purpose of the mission, and the lack of a timetable for engagement. Obama himself sealed this impression when he acknowledged on Aug. 9, "I don't think we're going to solve this problem in weeks, if that's what you mean. I think this is going to take some time."

The expansion of humanitarian interventions -- beyond what presidents initially claim will be the intended scope and time of military and diplomatic missions -- is completely normal. What is remarkable is how congressional members, media commentators, and citizens are newly surprised each time that this happens. In the near term, humanitarian interventions often save more lives than they cost: The University of Pittsburgh's Taylor Seybolt's 2008 review of 17 U.S.-led interventions found that nine had succeeded in saving lives. But they also potentially contain tremendous downsides -- as recent history demonstrates.

On April 7, 1991, the United States began airdropping food, water, and blankets on the largest refugee camps along the Turkish-Iraqi border that were sheltering Kurds displaced by Iraqi Republican Guard divisions brutally putting down an uprising in northern Iraq. That same day, when asked how long the U.S. military would play a role within Iraq, President George H.W. Bush declared, "We're talking about days, not weeks or months." In support of the humanitarian mission in northern Iraq, the United States concurrently began enforcing a no-fly zone above that country's 36th parallel. In August 1992, a U.S.-led no-fly zone south of the 32nd parallel of Iraq was formed by unilateral declaration to compel Saddam Hussein's cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors and to protect the Shiite population caught in a counterinsurgency campaign in the southern marshlands. Bush was right about the U.S. military involvement not being weeks or months: The northern and southern no-fly zones lasted another 10 and a half years.

In December 1992, when Bush announced the deployment of 28,000 U.S. troops to Somalia as part of the UNISOM peacekeeping force, he claimed, "Our mission has a limited objective: To open the supply routes, to get the food moving, and to prepare the way for a U.N. peacekeeping force to keep it moving." President Bill Clinton inherited this commitment as the peace enforcement and logistics effort was winding down, but then in June 1993, he approved of an expanded U.N. mandate to use all necessary means to capture or kill those responsible for the death of 24 Pakistani peacekeepers. (Clinton later claimed that then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, told him simply, "You ought to do this," and then retired the next week.) Two months later, Task Force Ranger, consisting of a few hundred elite U.S. Special Forces and special operators, was deployed on behalf of this new mission. The subsequent Black Hawk Down incident resulted in the death of 18 U.S. soldiers and several hundred Somalis. Within six months, all U.S. troops would be out of Somalia.

Clinton also inherited America's commitment to a poorly designed and inadequately resourced U.N. protection peacekeeping strategy in the former Yugoslavia. Between February 1994 and May 1995, Clinton authorized five separate, limited military strikes against Serbian army and air force assets in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. These attacks are inherently difficult to analyze because they were guided by the unusual "dual-key" principle, whereby the U.N. secretary general (or a designated representative) approved of every NATO airstrike. Nevertheless, in none of the cases did they measurably degrade Serbia's military capabilities, or deter them from further indiscriminate attacks against civilian-populated areas. It was only when NATO undertook its largest military mission ever, dropping 1,026 bombs over 17 days in August and September 1995, that the Dayton Peace Accords were signed to end the war. But the lesson of the limited utility of limited engagement still was not internalized in the White House.

In March 1999, Clinton administration officials believed that a few days of cruise missile attacks and airstrikes against Serbian military forces would compel President Slobodan Milosevic to accept NATO's demands that all Serbian security forces withdraw from Kosovo and international peacekeepers be admitted to enforce the peace. On the first day of NATO's attack, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated: "I don't see this as a long-term operation.... The deter and damage is something that is achievable within a relatively short period of time." This assumption was based upon a fundamental misunderstanding -- that persists to this day -- of the role that airpower played in 1995 in ending the Yugoslav civil war. In reality, it was the combined Bosnian Muslim-Croatian ground offensive, which reduced the territory controlled by the Serbian Army from 70 percent to 45 percent, that drove Milosevic to Dayton.

(I was a contributor to the State Department's Kosovo History Project, and, having read the cables and North Atlantic Council minutes from 1998 and 1999, I can attest that the Clinton administration's faith that a few days of bombing would compel Milosevic to cave was widely held among U.S. allies.) In reality, rather than cave, Milosevic escalated the attacks against Kosovar civilian and rebel forces, and the air war over Serbia lasted 78 days. Airpower succeeded only after NATO tripled the aircraft committed and quintupled the strike sorties, between the start and end of the war, and effectively razed much of Serbia's civilian infrastructure. As Thomas Friedman put it, "The war was won on the power grids of Belgrade, not in the trenches of Kosovo."

I would not consider the Afghanistan and Iraq wars to be humanitarian interventions, but full-scale invasions with the explicit goals of regime change, political transition, and reconstruction. Nevertheless, these wars were also sold and defended by downplaying the likely costs and duration. Most notoriously, the Iraq War was estimated by George W. Bush's chief economic advisor, Lawrence B. Lindsey, to cost in total between $100 and $200 billion, which the Office of Management and Budget chief Mitchell Daniels Jr. then said was too high a figure. Later, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld rounded down the expenditure to "a number that's something under $50 billion." The Pentagon chief also estimated, "I can't tell you if the use of force in Iraq today would last five days, or five weeks, or five months, but it certainly isn't going to last any longer than that." He would be off by roughly $1 trillion dollars and a decade.

Now the United States is back using force in Iraq on behalf of humanitarian and force protection goals, but with no apparent comprehensive strategy to achieve some clearly articulated end state.

Three and a half years ago, Obama promised that military regime change was not the reason that the United States intervened in Libya, because that would have engendered tremendous opposition on Capitol Hill and among the American public. Rather, his singular military mission was centered on protecting civilians in Benghazi, which Obama told his advisors would entail airstrikes that would last "days, not weeks," according to a senior White House official. Today, President Obama's clear omission of Nouri al-Maliki's name as he welcomed "Prime Minister-designate" Haider al-Abadi might lead some to believe this latest U.S.-directed political transition is a fait accompli, but Maliki retains the loyalty of well-armed security forces within Baghdad. But if Iraq's political leadership remains murky, what is less so is that Washington has now put skin in the game in negotiating this transition government.

When you listen to administration officials today, assume that their claims of a limited, relatively short, and narrowly scoped intervention will turn out to be false. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged that, in reversing the threat posed by the Islamic State militants, "The president has taken no option off the table." Meanwhile, an anonymous official stated that White House conversations have focused on limiting the intervention, because, "[Obama] did not want to create a slippery slope." But, when the United States intervenes militarily in another country it does not have control over the decline or slipperiness of that slope. The two most likely outcomes of the most recent U.S. attacks in Iraq are that the lives of some civilians will be saved in the near term, and that there will be a military commitment larger and longer than what administration officials presently claim.

Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Margaret Keith/U.S. Navy via Getty Images


Same Old Barack Obama

Don't be fooled by the Iraq airstrikes. He's the risk-averse president he's always been -- and that should be just fine by us.

Think U.S. President Barack Obama's recent decision -- welcome as it is -- to strike the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq represents a fundamental shift in his risk-averse foreign policy? Convinced that the leader whose critics blast him for leading behind is now -- with the 800-plus days that remain in his presidency -- on the verge of becoming the risk-ready leader you always wanted him to be? 

Lie down and take a deep breath until the feeling passes. More than likely, Obama is going to remain the Goldilocks president he's been, fashioning policies (see Syria, Iraq, and Gaza) that look for that elusive middle ground between what's too hot and too cold.

But how can we be so certain? During the course of their leadership at the helm of the country the best presidents learn, adjust, and adapt from their mistakes. And there's plenty of time left in his presidency. Maybe IS is Obama's cosmic wake-up call? Perhaps in its skill, cruelty, and sheer megalomaniacal ambitions, IS represents a truly lethal global challenge akin to that described in Yeats's poem "The Second Coming": "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" Indeed, since the one area where Obama has been truly risk-ready is counterterrorism and the protection of the homeland, maybe, just maybe, these limited airstrikes -- the ones the president acknowledged could last for months -- are the beginning of a redefining moment in Obama's Middle East foreign policy. And perhaps, having broken the ceiling on military action, he can now be more assertive in his foreign policy.

But I don't think so. Here are the most obvious reasons why.

Obama himself
A great many of the president's critics and fans hammer or praise the fact that not only did he teach the law (and was good at it), but that the way he reasons things out -- indeed, his approach to life -- is based on careful deliberation, rigorous application of logic, and a structured thinking things through and measuring out all conceivable scenarios. His critics believe this leads to vacillation and weakness; his boosters argue that it produces a much-needed careful deliberation. 

Having been an intelligence analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) for a number of years, I'd also say he'd make a great intel guy, too. Look at his Aug. 8 interview with Tom Friedman. Obama thinks not just in terms of possibilities (the diplomat's world) but probabilities (the analyst's domain). There's nuance and balance in his analysis. The problem, of course, is that really good analysis almost always leads to paralysis of action, or at least to ruling out the more risky and ambitious of options. This almost certainly happened in the case of Obama's refusal to militarize the U.S. role in Syria by either arming opposition groups or directly applying U.S. military power. The first, he told Friedman, would have been ineffectual; and the second he probably assumed would be a key to an empty room without a clear end game and a major U.S. commitment.

The bottom line: Obama's own nature is his biggest red line against bold, precipitous action and grand ambition. And unlike the one he drew on Syria's chemical weapons, it's unlikely to turn pink. Risk aversion will continue to be his guiding North Star.

The Libya precedent
The Friedman interview revealed another important reason why Obama's risk aversion is likely to endure. The president raised the issue about the lack of follow-up to help Libya after Qaddafi's overthrow. "Then it's the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, 'Thank you, America.' At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn't have any civic traditions.... So that's a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, 'Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?'"

Even though he doesn't come out and say it, you get the sense that if there was a chance to do it over again he'd be much more engaged. But there's another way to read the president's comment, too. And that's this: Military action is only one step in a complex process that requires a huge investment to create a relatively stable and functional transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. And Obama understands that hitting the Islamic State (IS), as necessary as it may be, is hardly a panacea for rebuilding the new Iraq. More to the point, that's not America's job. And Obama isn't going to correct his Libya mistake by getting bogged down in nation-building in Iraq.

The Iraq tar baby
And that brings us to the major reason Obama isn't going to reverse his fundamentally risk-averse nature in this dysfunctional region. To put it simply, Obama has no interest in resuming his predecessor's trillion-dollar social science project in Iraq. As extricator-in-chief, he's determined to get America out of profitless wars, not into new ones. His personal opposition to the 2003 war, his own analysis, his political commitment to getting out of Iraq, and the public's desire to do so all impel him not to change course. Could he add more special operators, continue air and missile strikes, and back the Kurds? Sure. Will he recommit ground forces? No. And that means that IS's future in Iraq will depend on the degree to which a new Iraqi government can be constituted that reflect the needs of all sectarian groups, a functional can be army rebuilt along those lines, and whether Iraqi Sunnis can be enfranchised and deny IS the Iraqi Sunni support partly responsible for its rise. Yesterday's power play by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is another cautionary tale in how hard this is going to be.

It's (still) a cruel and unforgiving world
Obama's inherent risk aversion partly explains his cautious foreign policy. Add in the bad hand he inherited and his focus on domestic priorities (see the middle class, not the Middle East) and you come pretty close to explaining his persisting caution abroad. But there's a major missing piece -- the politically inconvenient fact that his critics refuse to acknowledge: The world is a pretty cruel and unforgiving place. It's beset more by tough challenges and problems without solutions than it is by slam-dunk opportunities. Ukraine, Syria, the Arab spring, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- that's a pretty fun-filled list. Add the fact that the nature of those challenges is simply no longer quite as amenable to the conventional application of American military, political, and diplomatic power as it used to be, and you have a pretty nasty witches' brew. Alongside experiments in nation-building (see the Arab spring), asymmetrical wars (Afghanistan), historic conflicts (Israel and Palestine), and problems without neat solutions (see Syria/Iraq), there seems to be little room at the inn for bold American-made fixes.

Nor, as a consequence, is there as much latitude for a president to play the modern-day foreign-policy hero. Looking for some grand foreign-policy initiative? A Marshall Plan, maybe a Berlin airlift? How about heroic diplomacy during a Cuban missile crisis? Or a secret initiative to China? Or maybe a successful Camp David peace summit? It's hard to imagine an opportunity today of such heroic caliber. Indeed, Obama may already have delivered his. My guess is that if you asked most Americans what the most consequential foreign-policy act of this administration was, they'd say the killing of Osama bin Laden. It required risk, it was critically important, and it worked.

All of this argues for caution and continuity in Obama's foreign policy, rather than boldness and radical change. There may be surprises still before the end of 2016. Another run at Israeli-Palestinian peace, perhaps? A new phase in the Ukraine crisis? A major IS terror attack against the United States in Europe, the region, or even here at home? But none of these affords easy opportunities to play the hero's role.

The primary fault in this unhappy story isn't Obama's, nor does it lie in the stars. For an already risk-averse president whose time clock is quickly ticking down, getting big things done is just plain hard and always very rare, particularly abroad. Robert Penn Warren had it right. History, like nature, rarely jumps, and when it does, it usually jumps backwards. Obama may not like it, but he's accepted it. There can always be surprises. But it's getting late in the game, and as the president himself acknowledged: look for singles and doubles. They're a lot easier to hit than home runs.

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