The panicked flight of Iraqi soldiers from the key city of Ramadi and its capture by the Islamic State’s murderous thugs makes it more urgent than ever for Americans to resist calls to send U.S. troops back to Iraq’s killing fields.
Granted, the United States definitely has a dog in this fight, and it’s not the Islamic State. The forces of moderation, the people of Iraq who want to forge a modern, democratic nation, deserve our aid and encouragement. But if Iraqis aren’t willing to fight for their country, why should we?
The rout in Ramadi last week put the credibility of the government of Prime Minister Haider Abadi into question. It raises doubts about whether this is a government worth fighting for. Instead of using the defeat as an excuse to recommit U.S. ground troops to the fight, as war hawks such as Sen. John McCain are urging, this should be a moment to find out how much Iraqis are willing to do for themselves. Ultimately, it’s their country and their fight.
Consider: If the United States is willing to step into the fray every time the Iraqi government is threatened, why should Iraq’s people make the sacrifices and political compromises necessary to defeat a persistent and bloodthirsty enemy?
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Critics of the Obama administration’s policy on Iraq who claim the United States “abandoned” Iraq are way off base. U.S. forces spent more than a decade fighting in that country — at a cost of some 36,000 dead and wounded, not to mention trillions of dollars — and worked hard to lay the groundwork for a prosperous future built on traditional Iraqi values and an amicable relationship between Sunnis and Shiites.
The departure of American troops was as orderly as such things can be, and the result of a painful process of negotiation with Iraq’s government. If Iraqis haven’t been able to get their act together, it’s hardly America’s fault. And it’s doubtful that the infusion of another U.S. infantry division would make a significant or permanent difference. Any administration that disregarded the pitfalls and added a small contingent of troops would soon find itself mired in mission creep and facing urgent calls to do even more.
Not sending U.S. troops into the region again does not mean turning our backs on the region. But instead of debating whether to send ground troops, we should be asking how best to contain the threat of the Islamic State.
Downplaying the significance of the retreat from Ramadi, as the Obama administration has done, is neither convincing nor useful. The Islamic State has been hurt by a U.S.-led airstrike campaign, but the strategy has failed to stop the extremists. In Ramadi, ISIS fighters took advantage of a desert sandstorm that made airstrikes ineffective to fight their way into the city.
Short of sending U.S. troops back into the Middle East again in numbers overwhelming enough to make a difference — which we doubt the American people want, or can afford — the best strategy is to continue airstrikes and supplying weapons for Iraqi government fighters. But they have to pull the triggers.
The Islamic State fighters are well trained and highly motivated, yet not invincible. Government troops have been trained, as well if not better, by U.S. and allied forces, but their motivation is crucially lacking. If seeing their country overrun by brutal killers who want a return to medieval conditions isn’t a sufficient reason to summon the will to stand and fight, then their cause is hopeless.