The first public notice of Joe Biden’s era of the war he inherited as commander-in-chief came nine days into his presidency. The New York Times headline read, “U.S. Airstrike Kills Top ISIS Leader in Iraq.” Mind you, this notice was nothing major, the headline appearing on page nine — on a Saturday. We might think that the paper of record was doing the Defense Department or the new administration a bit of a favor in burying the story, but the fact is that it’s been years since the Iraq War has been much more than background noise for most Americans, many of whom think of it as long over and done. It may just be time then for America to get up to speed on the wars that the new administration will be pursuing.
Unfortunately this war, like the even older one in Afghanistan, may be forgotten, but it is not gone. Some things have changed, though. The official who announced the recent kill was Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the war’s official American title over the past six years. (The previous iterations of our Iraq War, known as Operation Iraq Freedom and Operation New Dawn, began with the Bush administration’s 2003 attack justified by fraudulent “intelligence,” and officially ended with the Obama administration’s reluctant 2012 withdrawal of the last American troops, at the insistence of the Iraqi government. A reduced number of military contractors — a major feature of this war — remained, however, and the period of total American military absence from the country lasted but three quarters of 2014.)
When our troops returned, the enemy had changed. The leader whose assassination was announced in the headline was known as Abu Yasser. His organization, ISIS — alternately known as the Islamic State or Dahesh — did not exist at the start of the Iraq War 17 plus years ago. And as recognized by no less than former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair — George Bush’s principal Iraq War co-conspirator — absent the US/UK invasion, ISIS would likely never have come into existence.
The U.S. claims anywhere from ten to thirty plus partners of varying degrees in this operation, but when it comes to doing the actual bombing, it’s pretty much the US picking up the tab and the partners chipping in on the tip, with the US estimated to conduct 75–80 percent of it. Although credit or blame for individual bombings is never publicly attributed, the Times reported that in the case of Abu Yasser, “senior Iraqi security officials who asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to release the information said that US aircraft carried out the strikes.” But this was not actually the first fatal airstrike of the Biden administration. Iraq’s Security Media Cell, affiliated with the country’s security forces, reported at least four other airstrikes killing 21 additional “ISIS militants” earlier that week. Nor would it be the last. Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi reported that nine other militants were also killed in the Yasser attack. (The Times initially reported the same, but the additional nine disappeared from subsequent American accounts of the event.) The next week, the Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor reported additional Coalition airstrikes killing “at least 11 other ISIS militants, including the commanders for southern Iraq, the western desert and northern Baghdad.” (Consistent with Coalition policy, the identity of the strikers was not revealed.)
At the moment, 2,500 American soldiers remain in the country, the fewest since the beginning of this phase of the war, a level reached via a Donald Trump lame duck troop withdrawal. In Iraq, the situation is obviously recognized for what it is — war. Generally not so, however, in the country carrying out the bulk of the airstrikes, neither in the halls of the nation’s capital, the studios and offices of its news media, nor the streets of its cities and towns.
For his part, our new president has announced that,“America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” Since America is now in the twentieth year of its war in Afghanistan, that pledge would take us back quite a ways. And so far as Afghanistan goes, the administration of the war’s fourth commander-in-chief has wasted no time in indicating the possibility of its reneging on the Trump administration’s agreement for complete withdrawal of the 2500 troops remaining. The Afghanistan Study Group, a bi-partisan congressional project, has also weighed in recommending an “immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current May 2021 withdrawal date in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result.”
Sufficient time? While Joe Biden is the first president to receive the support of voters who have never been alive when their country was not at war in Afghanistan, he also received support from older voters who once studied the Thirty Years War in school and were grateful that such insane occurrences appeared to be a thing of the past.
Meanwhile, while the new administration has indicated a welcome shift away from the Saudi war effort in Yemen, is there any reason to think that it will forswear the bombing of the other four countries — Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria that its predecessors have bombed every year? It would be nice to hope so, but thus far indications are that when Biden asserts that “diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” he is principally signaling his intention for more contentious relations with China and Russia.
Is there, then, any hope for a serious demilitarization of American foreign policy in the foreseeable future — given the stance of the White House; the generally bellicose foreign policy consensus of both parties’ congressional leadership; and the general obliviousness of most media opinion setters, and by extension, the general public? Well, Vegas would give you long odds against, but what hope there is probably rests upon two factors — money and the environment. The Covid-19 pandemic has been extremely costly — both in terms of government expenditure and the income not realized by the country’s working population. Could there come a point when public opinion turns against foreign invasions extending into multiple decades? And then there is the sleeping giant of the environmental movement. Today we have untold millions seriously concerned with the destruction that fossil fuels are doing to the planet, while paying scant attention to the existence and actions of a military network maintaining over seven hundred military bases around the globe. Might they come to understand that we won’t solve the first problem without also dealing with the second one?
So far as hope goes, it ain’t much, but it’s what we’ve got.