Three weeks ago near a secret base in northern Iraq, Marine Staff Sergeant Louis Cardin scrambled to usher the troops under his command into a bunker as rockets fired by the Islamic State closed in. The first of these projectiles missed, but the second hit its mark, leaving Cardin with a chest injury that within the hour proved fatal. It was Cardin’s fifth tour of duty: he was back in Iraq after serving there in 2007 and three times in Afghanistan. May he rest in peace.
Cardin’s death likely comes as a surprise to those who get their news from the White House. President Obama has been claiming since the fight against the Islamic State began that the United States isn’t engaged in combat in Iraq—we’ve merely deployed “advisors,” or some similarly innocuous euphemism. And while Cardin and his Marines weren’t going door-to-door rooting out extremists, they were test-firing cannons on Islamic State positions, which is what provoked ISIS to attack.
In other words, inexorable mission creep is tugging us ever-closer to another combat role in Iraq. Over at the Wall Street Journal, Bill McGurn rightly flays our peacemaking president for this:
Are Marines combat troops?
In Barack Obama’s world, the answer is apparently not—not even when they are on the ground exchanging fire with the enemy. This is the fiction supported by Hillary Clintonand largely unchallenged by any of the three Republican candidates for president.
A recent headline in the Marine Corps Times summed it up this way: “Marines in Iraq technically not in combat but still getting some.”
Welcome to Mr. Obama’s hidden war.
As McGurn points out, it wasn’t until Cardin was killed that the government conceded it had exceeded its cap of 3,870 troops in Iraq, with 5,000 of our armed forces now officially acknowledged. That 3,870 number was imposed by an agreement inked with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, meaning the United States is now in breach of its obligations. And of course, Congress has never approved an Authorization for Use of Military Force against the Islamic State, which means the entire operation is technically illegal.
Yet once again, we find ourselves staring into the sands of Iraq, wondering why that stretch of land between the Tigris and Euphrates remains so troublesome, chasing after stability like it’s a lush oasis in the desert. The deja vu is truly striking. Almost 12 years after the United States military drove the insurgency out of Fallujah, the city is back under jihadist control, with only the group’s name having been changed—from al Qaeda in Iraq to the Islamic State. UN officials are fretting over wrecked Iraqi cities like Ramadi, forcing us back into the Sisyphean task of nation building. Among the Shias, an old foe has returned: Moqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army murdered U.S. troops during the initial occupation, is gaining ground in Iraqi politics thanks to frustration with Abadi’s government. And the flag-draped coffins are coming home once again.
This won’t be the last round. Even if Iraq and Syria are fumigated of the Islamic State, the group will persist in Libya and Afghanistan. Destroy them there and you’ll discover that al Qaeda has rotated back to prominence, having cannily exploited vacuums in besieged Yemen and Syria to do a little nation-building of its own. Plus, don’t forget the revitalized Taliban in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in North Africa, and the endless Wahhabism generator that is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There’s a reason 2014 was the deadliest year for terrorist attacks since record-keeping began.
Hawks who grumble that all this could have been avoided had President Obama only kept the troops in Iraq don’t do justice to the scope of the problem. Under our Nobel laureate, America’s wars in the Middle East have persisted, feeding a cycle that only makes terrorism more likely. “[O]n my first day in office,” Obama wrote in 2008, “I would give the military a new mission: ending this war.” If he didn’t, then who will?