Ten years ago, Iraqi and Coalition Forces were boots-deep in Operation Together Forward, a two-phase mission to reduce violence and increase security in a war-torn Iraq. Soon after, the Iraq Study Group concluded that the operation’s results were "disheartening," to tread lightly.
In July, the Chilcot Report yielded another sobering analysis of meddling in the Middle East. This inquiry unpacked the UK’s involvement in Iraq. Though much of the report simply confirms what the public already suspected – that leaders knew Hussein did not have WMDs, and that there were peaceful alternatives to war – this report, once again, exposes misguided military interventions only after the fact.
The findings of the Chilcot Report and memory of a failed Operation Together Forward should reinvigorate our efforts to curb the sleazy rhetorical tactics used by political leaders to sweep us off our feet and whisk us off to conflict somewhere beyond the sea. In other words, brace yourself for Trump v. Hillary before the storm of September 26 hits.
Time and again, politicians have incited wars without terribly strong public resistance. Why? Some don’t care. Some don’t believe they can affect the path to war if they do care. And some truly find themselves persuaded when leaders wax romantic about the duties of international, militaristic evangelism.
That last factor gets the U.S. into the most trouble.
If you have doubts about the power and threat of punchy, provocative rhetoric, just look to the 2016 Republican National Convention for ideas. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy declared to a crowd, "The bad guys are winning and the good guys are losing." As if we learned our international politics in comic books and not newspapers.
In an environment so aflame in groupthink, politicians can get away with a sweep of policy. In any atmosphere, Republican or Democrat, buzzing with such pathos appeal, a political leader can entice an audience to its foreign policy limits.
The war in Iraq presents a case of policy far past its limits. While the war in Afghanistan followed reasonably from a gruesome homeland attack, the Iraq escapade lacked a lasting justification (the Hussein WMD story proved bogus). The Chilcot Report publishes that void of justification – a void our politicians were able to shimmy around early on.
If you’re puzzled about how politicians deceived us, just look to the strategic titles historically given to our military operations. Just Cause, Enduring Freedom, and Together Forward sound more like names for hippie commune farms than titles for armed missions.
And yet, the optimistically named Together Forward propelled us backward. The Iraq Study Group report confirmed, "Violence in Baghdad already at high levels jumped more than 43 percent between the summer and October 2006." By November, Operation Together Forward was abandoned.
The audiences of political speech often fatally trust politicians who cite justice and freedom as rationales for hawkish missions. It’s easy to get drunk on mob mentality, flamboyant speech, and virtuously named operations.
Moreover, this new century of presidential leadership has spawned a population disenchanted, frustrated, and starving for purpose and progress. It is little wonder that these citizens, hungry for political improvement and national flourishing, often find the war-pushing rhetoric easier to swallow. It worked with Afghanistan, it worked with Iraq, and, frighteningly, it’s working with ISIS now.
The last few years’ trek through economic recession, political scandal, and terrorist scares has produced starved wanderers of us all, desperate for something satisfying but dangerously indifferent about its form.
Contrary to sober reason, contrary to wise policy, and contrary to long-term goals, emotion-catering politicians spur militarism and can get a politically desperate public on board with that program.
This is a friendly reminder: do not allow political leaders to woo you into conflict abroad. And be especially skeptical of hawkish speech spewing from presidential candidates. We did not emerge ten years past a disastrous Together Forward in vain, to throw soldiers at a new problem, especially ISIS.
Emma Parma is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Affairs: National Security & Diplomacy at Texas A&M University. She is a Young Voices Advocate.