This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
If Barack Obama owes his presidency to one thing, it was the good sense he had back in 2002 to call George W. Bush’s plans to go to war in Iraq what they were: “dumb.” (The war was many other things too—illegal, cynical, not to mention disastrous—but “dumb” was pretty good for a guy running for Senate back when both parties had largely lined up behind the war.)
Since then, Obama’s had his ups and downs with the antiwar voters who delivered his 2008 nomination and subsequent election. But throughout the arguments over drones, Afghanistan, Libya and NSA spying—among other issues—Obama could always come back to these voters and say: Hey, at least I ended the war in Iraq. What do you think the Republicans would have done?
But now, with scarcely a whisper of serious debate, Obama has become the fourth consecutive US president to launch a war in Iraq—and in fact has outdone his predecessors by spreading the war to Syria as well, launching strikes not only on fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) but also on the Al Qaeda–linked Nusra Front and Khorasan.
This was no minor escalation. According to The Washington Post, the United States and its Arab allies dropped more explosives on Syria in their first engagement there than US forces had dropped over all of Iraq in the preceding month. It was the largest single US military operation since NATO’s intervention in Libya was launched back in 2011.
War planners are predicting that the latest conflict could rage for three years or longer, meaning Obama will bequeath to his successor a quagmire much like the one he inherited—the one he’d so distinguished himself by opposing and subsequently ending. That’ll make five US presidents at war in Iraq and beyond in a row.
Polls show some significant public support for air strikes against IS, albeit alongside ample wariness about getting dragged in too far. Support for action against IS is easy enough to understand: Many fair-minded people otherwise weary of war in the Middle East are appalled by the brutality of IS and feel compelled to “do something” to stop them.