The loss of the region to enemy forces caused resentment and despair. The central question asked was: “Why did we fight and die”? Veterans groups and soldiers were outraged, the public was in an uproar and the political leaders were tone-deaf.
That state of affairs refers not to Iraq in 2014, but to another American foreign intervention long ago: the 1745 battle of Louisbourg in what is today Nova Scotia, Canada. The American side lost 561 men — mostly from Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire — in that battle and its aftermath, only to have the British trade the city back to France three years later.
The exchange became one of the foundational grievances that would lead to the American Revolution: a fundamental loss of faith in government.
Today, we face a similar loss of faith, but in a much different location and against a worse enemy. The focus of this current loss of faith is in foreign policy, specifically the Middle East, and Iraq in particular.
The Obama administration came into office seeking any way out of Iraq, regardless of the cost. Not surprisingly, it found one. Through a steady retraction of political will, culminating with the failure of Status of Forces talks halfheartedly held with a skeptical Iraqi government, the United States ceded the high ground in post-Saddam Iraq.
Not surprisingly, America’s retraction has been mirrored by a growth of the very elements we sought to combat. The culmination has been the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), also known as al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.
The roots of ISIS pre-date the American invasion of Iraq. For a decade prior to 2003, the CIA had been concerned about senior-level contacts between Iraqi intelligence and al Qaeda, about the use of Iraq as a safe haven and training ground for terrorists, about the presence of al Qaeda in Iraq, about the group’s attempt to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and its training in poison gas and bomb-making in Iraq.
Al Qaeda’s use by Iraq prior to the American invasion for logistics, training, transit and safe haven is one of the uncomfortable realities that many in the media have actively sought to suppress.
Al Qaeda in Iraq rose to the peak of its power in 2006 and 2007, but was effectively beaten back by U.S. efforts and the success of the Bush-era surge. Unfortunately, this state of affairs turned out to be temporary.
The Obama administration’s subsequent 2011 decision to order withdrawal gave the group a new lease on life, and the years since have seen a steady intensification of al Qaeda activity (and attacks) in both Iraq and Syria.
The cost has been enormous. The United Nations estimates that al Qaeda in Iraq, now rebranded as ISIS, is responsible for about 800 civilian deaths a month. Boasting about 15,000 fighters, it seeks to establish a state within Iraq and Syria to launch the decades-long dream of al Qaeda: the establishment of an Islamic empire under a single dictatorship.
ISIS is active in Syria’s northern and eastern provinces and has taken administrative control over some of these areas. The group’s vision is global in nature, though, and so is the threat it poses. ISIS has proclaimed its intent to bring its violence to the United States itself, and several members have already been arrested in Canada and the United States.
In response, the United States has offered only mixed signals. On the one hand, Secretary of State John F. Kerry says that ISIS is out to destabilize the entire region and is the “most dangerous player.” On the other, he makes it clear that there will be no American troops used, saying “this is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis.”
Yet, if ISIS is out to destabilize the entire region, then it is only logical that the United States make it a priority. That it has not to date speaks volumes about America’s drift and lack of strategic vision in the Middle East.
The ramifications extend far beyond Iraq. America’s fumbling has handed its adversaries in the Middle East a freer hand, while giving the green light to other powers — such as Russia and China — to further their interests at America’s expense. Worse, it sent a message to all those who had lost loved ones that Iraq no longer mattered.
Here, history should be instructive. Just 10 years after its hard-fought victory in 1745, Louisbourg had to be retaken with five times the casualties in the process. Hopefully, our post-Iraq reckoning in the Middle East does not come at so steep a price.
Lamont Colucci is senior fellow in national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council.