The PBS NewsHour this past evening had a guest on from the American Enterprise Institute, one Frederick Hagan. Mr. Hagan apparently is critical of the president and administration concerning the problem of the “Islamic State” (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, depending on your outlook) in Iraq. It was all pretty much boiler-plate grousing, with copious “I told them so” thrown in.
But one exchange I thought was notable. The host asked for Mr. Hagan’s response to the argument from President Obama that the question of putting U.S. military troops on the ground and operating in Iraq had to have the approval of the Iraqis. Mr. Hagan opined that he found this argument most offensive, that the president is holding back support because of an opinion that the Iraqis would not themselves fight hard enough against the ISIS intrusion, and that he is outraged, outraged that this slur against them would be an argument. The Iraqis, said Mr. Hagan, have fought like lions in the surge and since to combat insurrection.
But I can’t help but feel that this is disingenuous on Mr. Hagan’s part. The issue behind the argument that the host inquired about, as I understand it, is not simple will to fight, but rather that curious, almost bygone concept once known as “sovereignity”. For those apparently unfamiliar with the concept, as Mr. Hagan apparently is, this was the notion that if you are the legitimate government of a country, you get to say who can and who cannot run military operations in your national space. Putatively, the Bush II administration set up a legitimate, sovereign, and independent government in Iraq, and also signed an agreement to withdraw almost all US military presence (a fact conveniently ignored for another criticism made by Mr. Hagan), meaning that Iraq not only was on its own, but that that was how its government wanted it to be. And the Obama administration is apparently invoking this concept in saying that for us to have a larger military response, we would actually need to get permission for that from the government that has been in power in Iraq since before Mr. Obama came to office, and that permission has not been forthcoming.
Now, certainly, recent events have shown that it isn’t just Mr. Hagan who is having difficulty with the concept of sovereignity per se, and that the Obama administration might well be showing some degree of hypocrisy in its unilateral decision-making on where to drop bombs as opposed to where we will send military troops, but that argument wasn’t near what Mr. Hagan was making. It might even be true that other arguments that the White House has put out include the one that Mr. Hagan made a rejoinder to; however, the question posed by the host wasn’t about that argument. (And I think it is silly not to consider the will to fight of the regime that one wants to ally with. We have been making the mistake of committing ourselves where the local regime isn’t prepared to actually make a fight of it since at least Vietnam. The reports coming out of Iraq concerning the advance of ISIS pretty clearly show that a substantial demographic fraction of the country are at least temporarily aiding the ISIS group, and the various instances of military collapse and no-show even when it would have been feasible for the Iraq army as it is currently constituted to repel the ISIS advance work against the “fight like lions” narrative.) Still, I think that pundits on the air presenting themselves as experts in a topic have some duty to actually answer the question posed, and not just rattle off whatever piece of rhetoric they have handy as if it were topical.