On the fall of Ramadi, Ash Carter, the U.S. secretary of defense, had this to say on CNN: "What apparently happened was that the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight." A few days earlier, Martin Dempsey, the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a similar point to a group of reporters in Brussels: "The ISF was not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi."
These remarks constitute the latest evolution of administration talking points on our failing campaign against the Islamic State. Shortly before Ramadi fell, U.S. officials were complaining to the press that its coverage of the war was biased against American efforts. In particular, the officials wanted television news to stop recycling old B-roll footage of IS from 2014, showing the fighters moving in mass formations of vehicles. The argument was that because our bombing campaign was so successful, IS could not and did not operate "in broad daylight" like that anymore.
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Then Ramadi fell, after which "convoys of heavily armed Islamic State fighters paraded triumphantly through the streets" of the city. The initial response was to pretend that the capture of the capital of Anbar Province, a city that U.S. Marines fought and died in large numbers to secure during the last decade, wasn't a significant event. It was a "tactical setback," in the words of President Obama. The president's spokesman, Josh Earnest, asked in a peevish tone if we were "going to light our hair on fire" over every such manageable "setback" like this.
With Carter's questioning of the courage of the Iraqi forces, the administration's spin has evolved from "everything is going great," to "this is not a big deal," to "it's not our fault—it's those cowardly Iraqis who can't get it done." And Carter may have a point. Reports from Ramadi indeed suggest that a combination of weak leadership and poor logistical planning in the face of a bold Islamic State assault cost the Iraqis control of the city.
It is also the case that hundreds (at least) of Iraqis loyal to their government died in the defense and fall of Ramadi. It is pretty rich for the American secretary of defense, who supervises a strategy designed to keep American servicemen out of the fight on the ground, to claim that the Iraqis lack fighting spirit. What about American fighting spirit? Our airstrikes are ineffectual, hampered by the same strict rules of engagement that held troops back in Afghanistan during 2009 and 2010. Our special operations troops are forbidden from leaving their bases to coordinate air support for the Iraqis, thus preventing the kind of campaign waged in Afghanistan in 2001, where a handful of American advisers partnered with the Northern Alliance achieved a stunning and swift victory over the Taliban.
We refuse to share any risk with our Iraqi partners, and then call them cowards in public when they fail. As a strategic matter, who will want to fight alongside us in the future after a display as pathetic as this?
In Brussels, General Dempsey had this to add to his witty putdown of the men actually doing the fighting and dying in Iraq: "But I said then, and I reiterate now, there may be tactical exchanges—some of which go the way of Iraqi security forces and others which go the way of ISIL. But the coalition has all the strategic advantages over time." It is a strange sort of general who congratulates himself for maintaining the "strategic advantage" in the face of what most people would consider to be a string of major defeats. And it is a strange sort of strategy that is based on an expectation that, "over time," we will have any friends left, if our leaders continue to find it politically expedient to belittle allies after sending them out to die alone. The only thing being degraded in the campaign against the Islamic State is American prestige.