The American Interest

Staying Out of Another War

In the final days of August the stage seemed set for a major escalation of America’s air war against the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL).  The operation, which started with limited tactical strikes between Mosul and Erbil—initially to save stranded refugees, then to help the Kurds defend their capital—was about to be expanded into Syria.  On August 26, the U.S. Air Force started reconnaissance flights over Syria to locate potential IS targets, only days after Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, indicated the likely widening of air operations.

The objective is unclear.  “ISIL must be destroyed, will be crushed,” Secretary of State John Kerry said.  “Absolutely,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes declared, “in the long term our objective would be to see an organization like ISIL defeated.”  Destroying, crushing, and defeating means waging a full-scale war and holding the territory in its aftermath.  To check and eventually roll back IS gains, American air power would need to be coordinated closely with massive ground forces in both Iraq and Syria—but whose forces?  Sending even a limited U.S. contingent back is a political impossibility in an election year.  The fight would be even bloodier and more costly than the nightmare of 2003-11.

The Shia-dominated Iraqi army is not up...

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