Why The US Military Opposed New Combat Roles in Iraq
18 June 2015
By Gareth Porter
A report on discussions within the Obama administration reveals that the US
military is firmly opposed to any ground combat role in the war against IS in
The story published in the Washington Post on 13 June shows how the US military
service chiefs – who make decisions on war policy in light of their own
institutional interests – prefer an inconclusive war with IS and existing
constraints on US involvement, to one with even the most US limited combat role.
The resistance of top US military officials to deepening US military involvement
in the war against IS came in the wake of a major policy debate within the Obama
administration following the collapse of Iraqi military resistance in Ramadi.
In that debate, senior State Department officials reportedly supported the
option of putting US advisers into Iraqi combat units to direct airstrikes on IS
positions and sending US Apache attack helicopters into urban combat situations.
But the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, joined top
military commanders in opposing that option, the Post story recounted. Dempsey
was said to have concluded that the potential gains from such an escalation were
not worth the costs in terms of possible US combat losses.
The result of that internal debate was that Obama sent 450 more advisers to
Iraq, but only to bases removed from the IS combat zone.
United against combat role
Although President Barack Obama was reported to be keeping future options open,
the constraints on the US military effort appear to reflect an alignment between
the White House and the US military establishment against a US ground combat
role in the battle against IS.
Obama's concern to prevent the war against IS from involving US ground combat
troops was clear from the outset. The White House appeared to be guarding
against pressure for a combat role by suggesting that Islamic State is a
''deeply-rooted organization'' and thus could not be defeated through US military
And even after domestic political pressures for a major military action
developed with the IS beheading of two Americans, Obama sought to avoid calling
the US airstrikes against IS ''war,'' choosing instead to call them a
Like many other observers, when the US began its bombing campaign against
Islamic State targets last August, I was certain that the bombing wouldn't have
any decisive effect on the IS forces, and feared that the logic of escalation
that had operated in the failed wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan would also
apply to the war against IS.
But the US military does not view every war in the same way. The military's
position in regard to a given proposal for war is based on a set of calculations
that may be crude but do follow a certain logic. Military leaders are neither
disinterested servants of the commander in chief, as portrayed in the official
mythology, nor agents of corporate business seeking control over the world's
resources, as the left has traditionally viewed them.
How military views war
Since the modern US national security state emerged early in the Cold War, the
posture of the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps toward different
proposals for the use of military force has been shaped primarily by their views
of the anticipated effect on their primary interests, which are the preservation
and advancement of their own institutions.
The interests in question are both material and psychological. They need to
ensure that they obtain enough budgetary resources to maintain the health of
those institutions, and they need to feel that their roles and missions are
still regarded as important.
The differences between how the US military services make decisions about war
and how corporations make business decisions are obvious, but they are similar
in one fundamental respect: like corporate businessmen deciding whether to
invest in a new product line or expand existing operations, the military
services chiefs also make calculations about the gains and costs of a new
military engagement to their own institutions and to the military as a whole.
The gains and costs in question are mediated by political conditions. The
anticipated gains from a proposal for war may include increased defense spending
in general or for particular military missions. A less tangible expected gain
would be to impress upon public opinion the important role of one of the
The calculation of potential losses in a proposed military engagement is focused
on casualties to US troops. But the cost of those casualties depends on the
political climate in the United States, which is in turn related to the actual
course of the war in question. So the military leadership may view large numbers
of casualties as tolerable in an early stage of one war but not tolerable at all
in the context of a different war.
The military service chiefs recall how public opposition to the Vietnam War
shaped the climate of opinion toward major war for more than 15 years in the
1970s and 1980s. They also remember vividly how public support for both the Iraq
and Afghanistan Wars eventually evaporated, and they have known that the US
public now has little tolerance for the commitment of ground forces in any war.
But they believe that they still have enough political support to continue
airstrikes against terrorists.
The question the military leaders have asked themselves is whether giving US
troops and pilots more dangerous roles in the war against IS in Iraq is likely
to generate more political support or have the opposite effect. Their pessimism
on that question is based on the knowledge that such an escalation won't help
defeat IS. As a senior Pentagon official told the Post: ''We have become very
sensitive to the idea that we don't want to risk lives and limbs if there isn't
a high probability of a payoff.''
The air war in Iraq and Syria is evidently expected to continue indefinitely.
But the fact that the US is intervening militarily in an openly sectarian
conflict without being able to affect the outcome is a fundamental political
problem that is bound to come back to haunt the Obama administration and the US
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S.
national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism
for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book is
Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be
contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.