U.S. Policy Toward the Islamic State

Mission creep usually guarantees mission failure. What follows from changing the original goals of the mission is all too evident in the failed U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Now the United States has fallen into that trap with the Islamic State. The result will be a long and costly engagement and failure.

Afghanistan and Iraq are prime examples. The original mission in Afghanistan was to overthrow the Taliban who had provided sanctuary to al Qaeda. That was swiftly accomplished. Given the rapidity and ease of accomplishing the mission, President Bush was emboldened to do the same in Iraq. While that was being done, U.S. troops pretty much lolled about Afghanistan with no particular orders. The outcome in Iraq looked very much like Afghanistan – a three-week campaign that overthrew Saddam. (Given that Iran had fought an eight year war with Iraq and lost made Iran a very tempting next target for the neo-conservatives running foreign policy. But that’s the subject for an entirely different piece.)

“Mission Accomplished.” And it was. But then the mission was changed. Instead of turning Afghanistan back to the Afghans; instead of turning Iraq back to the Iraqis, the Bush folks decided that the U.S. should run both countries.

Not only to run the two countries ourselves, but far more ambitiously, to remake each country into the image of the United States – democratic governments, market economies, liberal modern cultures.

The failure to accomplish any of those goals in either country is all too obvious. The years of death that followed and the years that will ultimately cost the U.S. trillions of dollars are all reminders of those failures.

But there is no greater sign of those failures than the debacle now unfolding in Iraq. The success of the Islamic State is a direct result of the failure of the U.S. to accomplish its grand-mission-creep goals for Iraq. What was created instead was a state run by and for the long oppressed Shia. Sunnis, the backbone of the Saddam regime, got their comeuppance. The Kurds got an autonomous Kurdistan.

The Islamic State is the Sunni response.

In order to blunt their advance on Baghdad and Kurdistan, the U.S. made its first air strikes against the Islamic State on August 10. Very selected air strikes stopped their attacks on Kurdistan, stopped their advance on Baghdad, allowed the Iraqi army to recapture a major dam, and helped ‘save’ many Yazidis.

On August 19, IS released a video showing the beheading of James Foley. On September 2, IS released another video showing the beheading of U.S. journalist Steven Sotloff. The videos unleashed a storm of outrage across the United States. The brutal killings of the two Americans generated more American hysteria than all the murderous tragedies that have befallen Iraq.

On September 10, President Obama vowed to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State.

Here is the finest example of mission creep since the debacle producing decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq.

The problems with this instance of mission creep are many.

First, the U.S. has made a commitment to accomplish a goal without controlling all the necessary variables. The Islamic State can be destroyed only with the use of ground troops. But there is not evidence that the Iraqi army will be up to the task. Since the all-out bombing of IS positions in Iraq by the U.S. and its coalition armies, the Iraqi army has yet to capture a single IS position.

Worse, to weaken general Sunni attraction to IS, the government in Baghdad has to drop its Shia commitments and become truly inclusive of its minority Sunni population. But there is as of yet no indication that the Shia are willing to make that adjustment.

Second, by beginning a widespread air campaign meant to destroy IS, the U.S. has made a direct enemy of IS. Originally intent on establishing their version of an Islamic state and controlling territories in Iraq and Syria, we have managed to get IS to focus its ire on the U.S. The terrorism alerts across the U.S. is the result.

Third, after attacking the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda franchise in Syria, the two have united. The groups have begun to hold joint war planning meetings. Other jihadi groups will feel encouraged to ally with IS against their common enemy.

Fourth, the U.S. has taken the side of the Shia in this fight. As a result, the regime of the Assads has been strengthened. So has Hezbollah. So has the Shia regime in Baghdad. So has he government of the Islamic Republic of Iran whose overreaching in Iraq and Syria, to begin with, had so much to do with birthing the Islamic State.

All in all, the U.S. has chosen a perilous course. The mission creep from moving to contain IS to destroying it is a major step that will not be accomplished any time soon and will, as a result, likely lead to attacks within the United States and to the strengthening of Iran which our sanctions are meant to weaken.

Marvin Zonis is Professor Emeritus, Booth School of Business, the University of Chicago.