Apolitical litmus test has required that presidential hopefuls deem the Iraq War a mistake and Afghanistan too expensive. But in light of attacks by the Islamic State, or ISIS, and renewed calls for U.S. escalation, how President Obama and the presidential candidates understand the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how and when they decide it is just and necessary to use American military power, has very real implications.
France has begun a major escalation in its air campaign against ISIS. Mr. Obama agreed to this “intensification,” but rejects the notion of sending large numbers of American ground troops to Iraq or Syria, fearing “a permanent occupation of these countries.” He continues to avoid the word “war,” insisting our military is simply combating ISIS. He is not prepared to put boots on the ground to take out the Assad regime.
When should peaceable people go to war and when is it just and necessary to use force? Mr. Obama resists articulating a doctrine. He and many others conflate the justness and necessity of using military force and skip to the strategy and tactics of its application and the achievability of its objectives.
Syria for Mr. Obama represents the challenges of Iraq and Afghanistan all rolled into one country. While running and serving, Mr. Obama disagreed with George W. Bush publicly on the first and supported his rationale on the second. The question now is whether he will apply the rationale of either.
To be clear, the use of military force against Iraq and Afghanistan was and remains just. In Afghanistan, Mr. Bush believed it a form of national self-defense, saying we should “make no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbor them — and hold both to account.” He also believed force to be necessary, as terrorists were training unabated in Afghanistan for another attack.
Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, had violated all four of the chief preconditions to sovereignty — any one of which is an internationally recognized cause for the just use of force. Hussein gassed his own people, violating international prohibitions on chemical weapons — and continued to violate the resulting inspection regime. He violated the genocide convention, murdering thousands of Kurds. He harbored terrorists, and not inconsequentially would have continued to do so if he were left in power. Lastly, he had shown unjustified aggression toward his neighbor nations of Iran and Kuwait.
Hussein’s behavior and the intelligence at the time led Mr. Bush to conclude the use of military force to remove him was not only just, but necessary. Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed, voting for it, although she now parses the issue by noting that she authorized the use of force, not the specific details of its application.
How the war in Iraq was prosecuted is clearly ripe for review and regret. These are the strategic and tactical issues Mr. Obama now cites as reasons for not escalating our war footing in Syria. But, Mr. Obama is also shying away from something more basic.
We are now at war with Syria. The level and intensity of that war might be small and directed at ISIS. But we are nevertheless using military force in a foreign, sovereign nation. The justness and necessity of such a decision must be explained. The just and necessary use of force is one of the things separating us from the terrorists. Yet the president prefers only to discuss his plans and strategy for combating and containing ISIS. He has not adequately explained his use of the military in Syria nor followed the last part of Mr. Bush’s doctrine of holding the terrorists and the nations that harbor them to account.
To his credit, Mr. Obama has been seeking alternatives to force in Syria for years. He called for President Bashar Assad’s ouster in the Arab Spring. He announced a “red line” threat on the use of chemical weapons. After Mr. Assad then used chemical weapons, the president rightly sought congressional authority to use force. Unfortunately, he proposed only punitive airstrikes and lost political support. Force is only necessary to protect life, not to punish. Mr. Obama then secured agreement from Russia to dismantle the Syrian chemical weapons stockpile. These efforts should be acknowledged.
However, in the meantime more than 140,000 have died in Syria and a staggering 40 to 50 percent of Syria’s total population of 23 million people have been displaced. The United Nations says it is one of the worst and most expensive humanitarian catastrophes in modern history. The ISIS foothold in Syria, and the terror it exports, is well documented.
The use of force in Iraq was just and, at the time, necessary, even if Mr. Obama disagrees with how things went. Mr. Obama used force to achieve regime change in Libya. He, like Mr. Bush, sought authority from Congress to use force for chemical weapons violations. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton relied on two of the other four causes for the use force, invading Iraq to free Kuwait and imposing no fly-zones to prevent genocide respectively. The mistakes Mr. Obama perceived in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be in strategy and tactics. He is seeking now to avoid in Syria the use of ground forces for full-scale occupation and stabilization. History will decide if unending civil war and global mass migration are less costly and disruptive. It will also decide if airstrikes alone constitute a reasonable foreign policy when the use of force is just and necessary.
• Thomas P. Bossert is former deputy assistant to the president for homeland security under President George W. Bush.