The Australian

By Tom Switzer

It has been said history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In fact, it comes around like insanity, repeating the same mistakes, expecting to get a different result.

Not that you’d know it from following the news that US President Barack Obama has requested congressional authorisation to use military force in Iraq again. This week the White House sought to distinguish Obama’s war in Iraq from that of his immediate predecessor. And it is true his draft resolution for the six-month campaign against Islamic State terrorists is different from the 2002 legal authorisation for the war that cost America dearly in blood, treasure and credibility.

George W. Bush’s mission to disarm a dictator in 2003 morphed into an ambitious campaign to democratise Iraq. Obama’s proposed resolution would impose a three-year limit on US military action while ruling out sustained, large-scale ground combat.

US presidents usually shy away from seeking congressional authorisation for war: think Harry Truman in Korea, Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam, Ronald Reagan in Grenada, Bill Clinton in Kosovo. But here is Obama calling on congress to restrict his ability to wage war.

No wonder his hawkish opponents are disturbed. Republicans fret that the draft resolution hampers the US campaign to fight the jihadists who occupy parts of Iraq and Syria. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page declared: “It deserves to be called the President Gulliver resolution: tie me down, congress, please.”

But the President’s own party is also uneasy. Democrats fret that the proposed measure has kept in place the 2001 congressional law that authorised the commander-in-chief to conduct a global war against terrorism. The fear is that Obama, or his successor, still has licence to expand presidential war powers that congress has sought to limit since 1973 and once again commits ground troops, via rescue operations or US Special Forces, to Iraq’s battlefield.

Which brings us to Einstein’s definition of insanity. Despite Obama’s qualifications, the point here is that the US is in the process of escalating a war that has already included 1900 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria in the past six months.

What that means for allies such as Australia is far from clear. But we should bear in mind that we are no longer on a humanitarian mission to protect helpless religious minorities from being massacred by barbarians, as we were in August. The coalition instead is undertaking a more ambitious project of wiping out Islamist fanatics in an ethnically and tribally divided country that cost the US nearly 5000 lives and $US2 trillion from 2003 to 2011.

The US-led airstrike campaign has no doubt inflicted heavy losses on Islamic State: killing its fighters, destroying its equipment and impeding its movements. Kenneth Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a leading proponent of the 2003 Iraq invasion, has even suggested: “In six to 18 months, the Islamic State may be driven out of Iraq altogether.” Pollack may be right: the terrorist group — thanks in no small part to its brutality repulsing the region’s Sunni mainstream — is increasingly on the defensive. It has not made any major conquests since it swept across towns north of Baghdad last June.

But it is also true that Islamic State still occupies nearly all of the territory it held in September when Obama announced his plan to “degrade and destroy” the group. Moreover, the underlying problem of Muslim sectarianism is far from solvable.

Most Sunnis in towns such as Mosul and Fallujah tolerate Sunni jihadists such as Islamic State for a simple reason: they are more afraid of Shia militants backed by the Iraqi and Iranian regimes. And as Pollack himself concedes, it is those Shia militants who form the backbone of the ground resistance to the Sunni jihadists. That helps explain why Iraqi political reconciliation remains at a standstill.

Until the new US-led mission meets the challenge of integrating marginalised Sunnis into Shia-run Iraq, it is bound to fail. This is the heart of the matter, which many left and right-wing hawks — from Julie Bishop and Tanya Plibersek to John Kerry and John McCain — have never fully grasped. Neither, apparently, has Obama.

The US spent nearly a decade using military power to try to pacify the very Sunni insurgents who have morphed into a plethora of jihadist groups. But the costs in blood, treasure and prestige were not commensurate with the investment.

“If money or military might would change that part of the world, we’d be done a long time ago,” says Democratic senator Joe Manchin. “In West Virginia, we understand the definition of insanity.”

This article was originally published at The Australian