The Biden Administration Is Taking Steps to Stay in Iraq Forever
A recent UN briefing reveals expansive goals for the U.S. war effort.
The new administration’s goals for the war in Iraq, at least as briefly outlined last Tuesday to the United Nations Security Council, are likely to prolong U.S. involvement indefinitely.
“Among its top priorities, the United States will seek to help Iraq assert its sovereignty in the face of enemies, at home and abroad, by preventing an ISIS resurgence and working toward Iraq’s stability,” Deputy U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Richard Mills told his fellow diplomats. That means facilitating free and fair elections, Mills continued, plus fighting Iran-linked militias and terrorist groups like the Islamic State, as well as funneling money toward economic development, humanitarian improvements, and the elimination of corruption. “The United States will remain a steady, reliable partner for Iraq, and for the Iraqi people,” he concluded, “today and in the future.”
That’s an understatement. With goals as expansive and flexible as these, the United States will have a military presence and roster of associated nation-building projects in Iraq not only through the end of the Biden administration but for decades to come.
Biden campaigned on a promise to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, which have cost us untold blood and treasure.” “Staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts,” he rightly reasoned, “only drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.” And Biden had a record as a voice of comparative restraint in the Obama administration to give that pledge some credence, as campaign pledges go. In those years as vice president, he opposed the surge in Afghanistan. He was also against U.S. regime change in Libya, and he was willing to accept a federalized Iraq to reduce violent internal rivalries with less U.S. involvement.
With just a few weeks in office, it’s not yet clear what Biden’s Iraq policy will be. But Mills’ brief remarks suggest we should not expect a dramatic shift the U.S. role in Iraq—certainly nothing like the complete withdrawal the average voter might anticipate on hearing a vow to end forever wars.
Precluding an ISIS resurgence, stabilizing Iraq, safeguarding elections, spending additional billions to “provide critical shelter, essential healthcare, emergency food assistance, and water, sanitation, and hygiene services,” and “end[ing] corruption”(seriously? ending?)—these goals will keep the United States occupied in (indeed, occupying, as civilian personnel will always be given military protection) Iraq in perpetuity. Every item on the list, ISIS excluded, has been a U.S. goal since the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion. That the list is no shorter now should tell us something about the feasibility of these aims for the United States.
To be fair to Biden, that one exception—counterterror operations against ISIS—has always been the exception to his forever wars promise. But Biden’s plan to do this by, essentially, maintaining the status quo misses three essential points.
First, there will be no complete eradication of ISIS (and/or whatever extremist groups come next) by military means. This is a battle of ideas, anxieties, and economics as much as physical violence, and to commit to keeping a military presence in Iraq until there are no more terrorists is, for the foreseeable future, to commit to keeping a military presence in Iraq forever. That presence isn’t the original regime-change mission, of course, but that hasn’t been our focus in Iraq for more than a decade. The U.S. war in Iraq has long since become a large-scale counterterror and counterinsurgency project. Under any reasonable definition, ending the war means ending that project, which, as a recruiting tool for terrorists, is something of a perpetual motion machine.
Second, dealing with remnants of ISIS does not require keeping U.S. boots on the ground in that project indefinitely. Were ISIS or a similar group to amass strength to the point of reviving the caliphate dream or otherwise substantially changing ground conditions, Congress could—and probably eagerly would—authorize U.S. troops to return to Iraq. But Biden should also realize the United States is not the only opponent of terrorism that could respond in that scenario: No regional powers (including neighboring Iran) are friendly to ISIS, and they have a strong interest in controlling its spread for the sake of their own security.
Finally, keeping U.S. troops in Iraq even longer is not a risk-neutral choice simply because it is the default in Washington. On the contrary, it constantly invites re-escalation by putting American forces in needless danger from a wide variety of anti-U.S. groups, ISIS and Iran-linked militias included. Prolonging the war in Iraq increases the chance of war with Iran and is counterproductive to Biden’s goals for U.S.-Iran relations.
It’s also unpopular with the vast majority of Americans, who, across party lines, understand what our government apparently cannot: The war in Iraq was one mistake, and further delaying its conclusion is another. Biden should truly end this forever war with a full and immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.