No US Boots On the Ground In Iraq Why does the US proclaim in advance what it will not do in the conduct of a critical military operation? It is all about domestic politics

WASHINGTON – “We’ve learned about the limits of our power to spread freedom and democracy. That’s one big lesson out of Iraq. But we’ve also learned about the importance of our power, our influence, and our values.” 

Rebranded Hillary Clinton

This is a recent quote from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, (interview published in The Atlantic). Do keep in mind that until recently Clinton was the implementor of Obama’s dovish foreign policy. But now we discover that she has just “rebranded” herself as a hawk.

US power and what it can do

Be that as it may, let’s take Hillary Clinton as if she actually means what she says. The implication of what she said are deep. Even though she made a very broad statement, her words imply that America’s power, and that must include military power, is a major force that can shape world affairs.

That said, I would add that, unless there is a clear willingness to use this power, without any self-imposed, artificial restrictions, its ability to influence events is limited.

No US boots on the ground

And this brings me to the latest reiteration on the part of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry that the US will not send any combat troops into Iraq.

In a normal world, these statements would be completely crazy. Why would any head of government state –in advance– what he will not do when confronting a dangerous and violent enemy like ISIS (or ISIL) in Iraq? Why telegraph to the enemy that we are going to use only limited force against his armies?

There is no good military rationale for any of this.

Sadly, as we know, the rationale has to do with American domestic politics. Obama was supposed to be the peace President who cleaned up the mess left behind by crazy George W. Bush.

The narrative

Here is the established narrative: “Bush: warmonger. Obama peace-loving”. And Obama often cites the ending of Iraq’s military occupation in 2011 as a significant foreign policy milestone of his administration.

But now unpleasant events have come along to spoil the narrative.

Now Iraq is falling apart. Now there is ISIL, a fanatical group with the stated ambition of establishing itself as the credible ruler of an Islamic Caliphate, with a solid grip on a big chunk of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. Its armed forces are now threatening the Kurds in the North East of Iraq, while terrorizing religious minorities forced to flee their homes.

This is not a war

And so, reluctantly, Obama has been forced to spoil his own narrative. No, as it turned out the war in Iraq is not over. American war planes are now bombing ISIL forces. That said, Obama insisted that this is mostly a humanitarian intervention, aimed at protecting civilians and US military advisors in Kurdistan.

In other words: “This may look like a war, folks. But it really isn’t. Trust me. It will be over in no time. And, to prove that I mean what I say, let me repeat that no, there will be no US boots on the ground in Iraq.”

Opinion polls determine the scope of military operations

And so, here we have the sorry picture. The conduct of US military operations is not determined by political-military considerations emerging from the theatre of operations. No, in the US we use opinion polls to set the parameters for military operations half a world away.

The President had told America that the war in Iraq was over. Americans are tired of wars, and they do not even want to hear more bad news from Iraq. Therefore, it would be bad politics to deliver any.


Of course, one could argue that it is the job of any sitting US President to explain convincingly why we should use US military power, if and when the circumstances so require. This is what leadership is all about.

But Obama does not want to do any of that. Hence the half-backed, reluctant intervention to protect the Kurds.

Hawkish Clinton

Hillary Clinton has a different agenda. Revving up her presidential  bid, now she is trying to gain some ground in the critical middle of American politics. And so now she sounds quite a bit more hawkish.

Actions, not words

But in the end the statements made by US policy makers, or would-be policy-makers, will be believed only if they are followed by credible, sustained actions. Clever talk about the importance of US power may get you elected. But talk alone will not win any wars.

So far, not so good.



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