Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Can Obama avoid mission creep in Iraq?

By Julian Zelizer
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters assemble at a shrine on Iraq's Mount Sinjar on Friday, December 19. The Kurdish military said that with the help of coalition airstrikes, it has "cleansed" the area of ISIS militants. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters assemble at a shrine on Iraq's Mount Sinjar on Friday, December 19. The Kurdish military said that with the help of coalition airstrikes, it has "cleansed" the area of ISIS militants. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
HIDE CAPTION
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
Iraq under siege
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
The ISIS terror threat
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama plans to send 300 military advisers to Iraq to stabilize conflict
  • Julian Zelizer: History shows us that mission creep is difficult to avoid
  • He says many operations - in Korea, Vietnam, Somalia - start small but end big
  • Zelizer: Obama could find himself forced to send more troops than he expected

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- President Obama is about to send up to 300 military advisers to Iraq in an attempt to stabilize a situation that is rapidly disintegrating. Obama had hoped that the end of the Iraq war would be a key accomplishment of his administration. But just as he thought it was safe to get out, the President is finding himself drawn back, as violence has been spreading throughout Iraq.

Understanding that American patience for another war is limited, President Obama promises this mission will be contained.

But mission creep is difficult to avoid. The history of military involvement shows that many operations that start small end big. While the United States initially entered Korea to try to get the North Koreans out of South Korea after an invasion, President Harry Truman found himself presiding over a full-scale military mobilization that lasted three years, cost over 30,000 lives and helped bring down his administration.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Vietnam started small, with military advisers under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Even when President Lyndon Johnson requested from Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that granted him broad authority to use military force, he didn't imagine how big the conflict would become, resulting in the death of nearly 60,000 U.S. soldiers and dramatically undermining America's role in the world.

Examples of mission creep continued. George H.W. Bush had 30,000 troops enter into a peacekeeping mission in Somalia. The mission didn't go so well. As a result of an attack on U.N. forces by a warlord in the country, the operation expanded and President Clinton found himself ordering more expansive operations.

Although George H.W. Bush was determined to stick to his goal of kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1990 and 1991, once troops were in the region, the United States became committed to ongoing engagement with Hussein as he flouted U.N. resolutions. In Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11, the United States vastly broadened the scale and scope of its operations as challenges of post-regime reconstruction proved immense.

Obama: Troops 'not returning to combat'
Expert: Assistance to Iraq must come soon
Obama walks delicate sectarian line

Why does it prove so difficult to contain operations? Why is mission creep so common? Most importantly, war inherently involves many moving parts, most of which are not under the control of the commander in chief.

Often, as was the case with South Vietnam in the 1960s, allies prove difficult to rely on and cause problems of their own, while opponents frequently are capable of causing far more trouble than expected, even when they have fewer resources than the United States.

Although a mission might seem small at first, the logic of war creates new dangers for advisers or soldiers in the field and makes it very difficult to avoid pouring more resources into a problem.

Domestic politics also matter. Very often the political pressures to escalate intensify once a president has committed forces to a region, particularly in the early years of a conflict. Both parties, as was the case with the Cold War and in the aftermath of 9/11, vie to be the party that will be tougher against the nation's adversary. Neither party wants to look weak, to be the party, as Republicans said of Democrats after 1949, that lost China to communism.

Finally, in this day and age, many of the missions that involve U.S. troops are not clear-cut or well defined. It is unclear what victory even looks like anymore. During the war against terrorism, the United States has found itself drawn into operations where it is trying to create stable government structures that will not house terrorist networks or work on a continuous basis in countries to fight against fundamentalist forces. None of this lends itself to a quick end or to limited involvement.

President Obama might get lucky and find that the advisers he sent to do the job get the job done. But history shows that mission creep can also happen quite quickly, and the President could easily find himself forced to send more troops than he expected into the quagmire of Iraq.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT