America’s Goal in Iraq: Make It Stable Enough So We Can Go Back to Ignoring It

The World
How It Works
Aug. 19 2014 12:20 PM

What Does “Mission Accomplished” Look Like in Iraq This Time?

Nic6362638
A Kurdish peshmerga fighter flashes the sign for victory after recapturing the village of Tel Asquf near Mosul, on Aug. 18, 2014.

Photo by Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

In all of his statements on the new U.S. military operation in Iraq, including his remarks yesterday, President Obama has repeatedly emphasized that he’s intent on avoiding “mission creep,” that American objectives are limited, and that this won’t be a new Iraq war.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

That is understandable given American public opinion right now, and so far the limited U.S. airstrikes do appear to be succeeding in helping Kurdish and Iraqi forces push back ISIS fighters from northern Iraq and allowing an international humanitarian aid mission to ramp up.  

Advertisement

On the other hand, it’s not really clear from what the president has said how he defines success in this mission. Obama has several times emphasized that he has no plans to allow the U.S. military to serve as the “Iraqi air force” and that the Iraqi government is responsible for its own security. In some sense, we seem to be back to George W. Bush’s old “as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down” mantra. But this time expectations are far lower and goals far more vague.

“We can and should support moderate forces who can bring stability to Iraq,” the president says. But how much stability is enough?

Clearly ISIS’s gains in northern Iraq two weeks ago and the humanitarian crisis faced by the Yazidi refugees on Mount Sinjar was seen as a tipping point. Obama has spoken of preventing a “potential act of genocide” and noted that if the Mosul Dam had been breached, “it could've been catastrophic.”

"The wolf's at the door," Obama said of ISIS yesterday. But the wolf has been there for a while. After all, ISIS’s offensive in Iraq began not in June when it captured Mosul but back in January when it took Fallujah, a development that garnered little attention in the United States, or at least prompted few calls for intervention.

Is stability a situation in which only one major Iraqi city is under the control of terrorists? Or perhaps one in which the monthly death toll from violence in the country is around 1,000 instead of above 2,000? Or perhaps one in which ISIS commits its mass atrocities only on the Syrian side of the border?

From recent discussion, you would think that the removal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was a long-standing goal of U.S. policy. The United States seems to have played a behind-the-scenes role in hastening his departure from power and is rewarding Iraq’s government with more assistance now that he’s gone. But the administration also seemed more than willing to support Maliki for years even as it was abundantly clear that he was hollowing out Iraq’s institutions and using his security forces to stifle political opponents, paving the way for exactly the sort of situation we’re seeing now. Are we really going to keep that much closer tabs on his successor?

The cynical answer is that the goal seems to be for Iraq to become just stable enough that we can go back to not paying attention to it. And I suspect that in the end, that may have more to do with how long the U.S. media continues to treat Iraq as a major story than with what’s actually happening there. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

Stop Panicking. America Is Now in Very Good Shape to Respond to the Ebola Crisis.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals Show the Value of Building a Mediocre Baseball Team

The GOP Won’t Win Any Black Votes With Its New “Willie Horton” Ad

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

I Am 25. I Don’t Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 11:40 AM The U.S. Has Spent $7 Billion Fighting the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. It Hasn’t Worked. 
  Business
Business Insider
Oct. 21 2014 11:27 AM There Is Now a Real-life Hoverboard You Can Preorder for $10,000
  Life
Quora
Oct. 21 2014 11:37 AM What Was It Like to Work at the Original Napster?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I Am 25. I Don't Work at Facebook. My Doctors Want Me to Freeze My Eggs.
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 20 2014 7:15 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 9 A spoiler-filled discussion of "Flatline."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 11:34 AM Germans Really Are More Punctual. Just Ask Angela Merkel.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 10:43 AM Social Networking Didn’t Start at Harvard It really began at a girls’ reform school.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 21 2014 7:00 AM Watch the Moon Eat the Sun: The Partial Solar Eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.