What the UK Government’s Remarks Say about US Mission in Iraq

In a burst of information, British Prime Minister David Cameron and his Defense Secretary Michael Fallon have begun to describe in more detail the British military mission in Iraq alongside US forces. Some of these statements are not congruent with the way in which the Obama administration might wish to frame ongoing and future military operations. The statements coming out of the UK may therefore reveal more about the underlying reality of the battle with ISIS, or they may simply indicate differences in outlook that often accompany coalition warfare (think: NATO’s Kosovo campaign).

Most important are three statements by the British Prime Minister and Defense Secretary in the past few days: (1) Cameron’s article for The Sunday Telegraph over the weekend; (2) Cameron’s BBC interview on Monday morning; (3) Fallon’s remarks over the weekend to pilots and aircrew at a British base in Cyprus.

Here are the reveals:

1. Military mission is not just humanitarian (and not just protection of US personnel)

Defense Secretary Fallon stated to British forces:

“This is not simply a humanitarian mission.”

This knocks out one of the two pillars of the Obama administration’s stated objectives. The other objective that President Obama has described is protection of US personnel. But that rationale is decidedly not a principal part of the UK position.

So then, what is the third missing objective? To hear Prime Minister Cameron and Defense Secretary Fallon describe it, the military mission includes fighting ISIS to keep Britons at home safe from terrorist attacks, to protect Iraqis, and, more specifically, to “shrink back” ISIS in Iraq.

A key statement in Cameron’s BBC interview this morning:

“With our allies we should be doing what we can to shrink back Islamic State in Iraq. … It means using the assets that we do have to help with the Americans and others who are taking a more forward role in dealing with them militarily.”

Fallon’s remarks are consistent: “This is not simply a humanitarian mission. We and other countries in Europe are determined to do what we can to help the government of Iraq combat this new and very extreme form of terrorism that IS is promoting.”

2. Military operations to last “months”

Fallon’s remarks include a statement that British military operations will last “months”:

“There may well now be in the next few weeks and months other ways that we may need to help save life [and] protect people and we are going to need all of you again and the surveillance you are able to give us.”

It is true that President Obama’s statement on August 9, 2014 may have meant that the US military operations could last months. However, a close reading of Obama’s response to a journalist suggests that he might have been referring to a host of US activities including advising and assisting the Iraqi government. The UK Defense Secretary’s statement to British forces describing future military operations is more direct and specific evidence of the trajectory of the allied mission than what President Obama has said so far.

3. Bad framing: Global War on an Ideology?

One of the most important and determined moves by the Obama administration (and some say the second term of the George W. Bush administration) has been to turn the framework away from a so-called Global War on Terror (GWOT) to an armed conflict with specific organizations (e.g., Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and directly associated forces).

Unfortunately, in this regard, Prime Minister Cameron seems to be on a different page. Cameron’s article in the Sunday Telegraph states explicitly that we should turn away from a War on Terror (good, so far) but suggests we turn instead to a “battle against a poisonous ideology.” As one might anticipate, Cameron was careful to explain that this ideology is not Islam. Rather, he explained that it is an extremist and violent ideology that is “condemned by all faiths and by all faith leaders, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim” and one that attempts to “abuse” and “pervert” the Islamic faith.

Nevertheless, waging a battle against an ideology risks slipping into the same amorphous and worrisome territory as the so-called GWOT. Indeed, Cameron then went on to describe multiple “battlefields” that presumably include Nigeria, Somalia, and elsewhere:

“These extremists, often funded by fanatics living far away from the battlefields, pervert the Islamic faith as a way of justifying their warped and barbaric ideology – and they do so not just in Iraq and Syria but right across the world, from Boko Haram and al-Shabaab to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” (my emphasis added)

4. Bad faith?

In his BBC interview on Monday morning, Cameron stated:

“We are not going to be putting boots on the ground. We are not going to be sending in the British Army” (my emphasis added).

But British boots have been on the ground. Recall President Clinton’s “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is”? For Prime Minister Cameron, it might depend on what the meaning of “going to be” is. News outlets are now reporting that “British [d]efense officials disclosed on Monday that a small number of British soldiers had in fact been on the ground in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq last week when Western nations, led by the United States, were contemplating a huge rescue effort” (emphasis added).

* * *

Now is not the time for government officials to lose faith with the American or British public about the struggle ahead with ISIS. It is a sad reflection that one has to engage in this sort of analytic exercise to decipher the objectives and intended effect of sending our forces into an armed conflict—especially if it is a conflict worth waging. Leaders in both nations should explain more clearly what goals we are pursuing, what are the actual assumptions about the future phases of the military campaign, and what commitments and sacrifices the mission will require. 

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About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.