Why Bombing to Win in Iraq Will Fail

"The inability of the president to articulate such a vision to the American people suggests he may not have one."

In a sun-drenched Rose Garden address the day rebels assassinated Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011, President Barack Obama touted the successes of the NATO-led air campaign that achieved its objectives “without putting a single U.S. service member on the ground.”

Three years after what one Obama adviser celebrated as a successful illustration of the president’s preference for “leading from behind,” Tripoli’s short-lived democratic regime has returned to the hands of Gaddafi loyalists and begun brutal crackdowns as the nation became overrun by extremists who successfully stormed a U.S. compound in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, and killed four Americans, including one of the nation’s most distinguished diplomats.

This fate will befall Iraq if President Obama believes that America’s presence in Baghdad can be limited to “targeted” air strikes against carefully selected affiliates of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a protomilitary terrorist organization, whose cunning strategy and brutal tactics are so vile that even Al Qaeda refuses to affiliate itself with its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

History has consistently demonstrated that relying on air power alone ensures that American military campaigns not only fail to accomplish their strategic objectives, but ultimately prove counterproductive in complex operational environments like the one confronting the U.S. military advisors deployed to Iraq in June.

In Bombing to Win—the often overlooked but equally compelling predecessor to Dying to Win, his assessment of the strategic logic of suicide terrorism—distinguished University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape conducts a systematic examination of nearly every American bombing campaign since the advent of air power and concludes that a near-exclusive reliance on aerial bombing in the absence of other elements of military force may generate short-term tactical gains, but ultimately secures few sustainable strategic successes.

The 1999 American air campaign in Kosovo is just one case in point. Often praised as a successful military operation conducted solely from the skies, General Wesley Clark, the top military commander in charge of the operation, suggests in his memoir it was the threat of a ground invasion from Russia that likely forced Slobodan Milosevic’s hand in surrendering at least as much as NATO’s coercive air campaign, which had stretched on for seventy-eight days by the end of major combat operations in Yugoslavia.

In Iraq, air strikes alone—no matter how carefully selected the targets and how precisely guided the missiles—hazard enormous risks that could hand ISIL the strategic victory it craves in its propaganda war against its regional rivals.

The U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency field manual, updated since its implementation under the leadership of General David Petraeus during the 2007 U.S. troop “surge” in Iraq, anticipates precisely this danger in warning that air strikes that cause unintended civilian casualties can “fuel insurgent propaganda” that displays “those killed and wounded to the media as victims of aggression.”

Whether through violent videos on YouTube or gruesome pictures of decapitated heads on gate posts, al-Baghdadi’s forces have proven especially adept at leveraging social media to attract foreign fighters to their cause from as far away as China and the United Kingdom. Nothing would accelerate ISIL’s recruitment drive faster than Iraqi streets littered with the remains of women and children killed by American missiles.

In his address announcing the waging of a limited American air campaign, President Obama went to great pains to emphasize that these strikes would be conducted “if necessary” and limited to targets advancing on the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil in northern Iraq.