Virginia Tech®home

America’s Recent Military Actions in the Middle East



Authors as Published

Plan for war, but do not plan for anything after that

Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump should be considered Hawks when it comes to the United States’ (US) role in the Middle East, as Clinton’s policy stances and actions and Trump’s militaristic language warrant that label. As a Senator from New York, Clinton voted for the war in Iraq, followed by the later commitment of a “surge” of US troops. She was also a proponent of American intervention in Libya. Trump, although short on foreign policy credentials, has routinely used bellicose rhetoric promising to “bomb the s—t out of ISIS” and to send 30,000 additional US ground troops to Iraq (Engel 2015). These policy stances concerning the Middle East are in keeping with a recent trend in American efforts in the region: undertaking military action in the area without planning vigorously for what may follow thereafter. The US has deployed military force three times in the region since September 11, 2001 (9/11), and in each case, has done so without a clearly defined objective or plan for what should happen once that action was complete. This failure to define post-conflict objectives has created power vacuums that actors hostile to the US in Iraq and Libya have filled. This essay will discuss America’s use of military force in Iraq in 2003, in Libya in 2011 and again in Iraq in 2014, detailing how the US failed to plan appropriately for what would happen after its initial intervention. I will also argue that whoever is elected president on November 8 will not only inherit the problems now afflicting Iraq, but will also likely make the same mistake of employing military force in the region without planning adequately for what should occur afterwards.

Winning the Fight, Losing the Peace Since 2003

This disposition to deploy military forces without careful attention to the consequences of such action originated in recent years with President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. From a conventional military standpoint, the conflict was a resounding success, as American forces toppled Saddam Hussein in less than a month. The pre-war military planning was meticulous, consuming nearly 15 months, but Department of Defense and White House officials did not give the question of what should occur after hostilities had ended the same attention. The US failed initially to have a robust plan in place to anticipate and coordinate post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq. In order to help stabilize the nation, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) was quickly created and President Bush named Paul Bremer to lead it. Bremer saw himself as the President’s “personal envoy” in Iraq, believing he had a mandate to make sweeping decisions in the country (Bremer 2006, 4). In an effort to tighten United States’ control in Iraq and purge any remaining authoritarian elements from its government, Bremer issued CPA orders 1 and 2. CPA order number 1 implemented de-Ba’athification, essentially removing all members of the Ba’ath party (Hussein’s party) from their positions in government and barring them from service in the public sector in the future. Given the size and the scope of the Ba’ath party in Iraq, this meant a large portion of the population was now comprised of individuals officially considered personae non grata. CPA order number 2 disbanded the Iraqi military, relegating the members of that once proud force to unemployment. As both of these institutions were Sunni Muslim dominated, CPA orders 1 and 2 alienated large swaths of that group’s population, making them vulnerable to recruitment by groups such as al Qaida that were now flowing into Iraq. These American-led steps helped create a viable insurgency in the country, further fragmented the nation along sectarian lines and led to the violence between Sunni and Shia Islamic groups that persists in Iraq today.

President Barack Obama’s decision to support a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) intervention in Libya followed a similar pattern of failure to develop a strong post-war plan. In an effort to prevent Muammar Qaddafi from “commit[ing] atrocities against his people,” the United Nations (UN) Security Council approved Resolution 1973 on March 17, 2011; a no fly-zone barring all fights over Libya, except for humanitarian purposes (Obama 2011). The US then “led a coalition in launching air and missile strikes against Libyan forces” beginning on March 19 of that year that cost approximately $1.1-billion and avoided any NATO force casualties (Daalder and Stavridis 2012). However, while the operation was billed as an initiative to save civilian lives, it morphed into an effort to secure regime change. Eventually, the NATO actions helped lead to Qaddafi’s removal from power. Once again, however, American officials painstakingly planned the military operations, but gave little attention to what should happen after regime change had occurred. President Obama was determined to avoid the mistakes of his predecessor by not committing a large occupying force to Libya, and therefore ceded much of the responsibility for nation rebuilding to NATO and the UN (Goldberg 2016). However, post-Qaddafi regime assistance from NATO, the UN and the US did not focus on building a viable security structure. Instead, those organizations and Libya’s transitional leadership focused on “preparing the country to vote for a national legislative assembly” just 240-days after liberation (Wehrey 2016). The choice to focus on elections rather than security allowed competing militia groups within Libya to grow unchecked and these eventually helped deepen factional divides within the country.

Instead of Qaddafi’s removal resulting in improved conditions, Libya has become a failed state characterized by various highly armed factions, “leading to deadly turf battles between rival tribes and commanders.” (Kuperman 2016). Worse yet, Libya now serves as a haven for radical Islamist groups affiliated with ISIS and al Qaeda.

The US’ third recent attempt to employ military action in the Middle East, President Obama’s decision to redeploy American troops to Iraq to help combat ISIS, has followed a similar pattern. In this case, US deployment steadily evolved, resulting in significant mission creep. The Administration’s initial plan in June 2014 called for deployment of a few hundred Special Forces troops, but that total has since climbed to approximately 5,000 (Cooper 2016). As the number of US troops has grown in Iraq, the scope of their mission has increased subtly as well. To be fair, American forces in Iraq are far from carrying out full-fledged counterinsurgency operations, but they are deployed close to the battlefield and have even engaged in direct action raids at times.

The Obama administration’s plan to combat ISIS in Iraq has proven successful during the last two years, resulting in the terrorist group losing nearly 50 percent of its territory in Iraq. Some of this change has arisen as a result of the efforts of Iraqi forces supported by US advisors and airpower. Additionally, the State Department’s Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL, said in June that the number of ISIS(L) fighters inside Iraq and Syria had shrunk to as few as 18,000-22,000, a sharp decrease from the 33,000 combatants that organization commanded in those two nations in 2014 (Hudson 2016). All of this news about tactical success on the battlefield should be welcomed, but should not be a surprise. American led coalitions easily overthrew Hussein in 2003 and Qaddafi in 2011. Although United States troops are not doing most of the ground fighting today, American airpower has proven an undeniably dominant variable in ISIS’ recent defeats.

Nonetheless, as in Libya and Iraq (circa 2003), the US does not appear to be formulating a clear plan for what happens when ISIS is pushed out of Iraq. Even as Iraqi forces retake Mosul as this is written, the same social and political problems that gave rise to that organization’s emergence are no closer to being solved. Iraq is still fractured along sectarian lines, Sunnis are still distrustful of the government in Baghdad and Shia militant groups are as strong as ever. Moreover, US training and mentoring of Iraqi Security Forces since 2014 has yet to make that military group strong enough to fill the power vacuum ISIS will leave. Additionally, the Iraqi government has not shown that it can provide social services, such as needed food, water, trash collection and even a police force in the area ISIS is vacating, responsibilities at which the terrorist group has proven surprisingly effective during its occupation of the area.

Plus ça Change?

The challenges of a post-ISIS Iraq are already beginning to emerge as the US presidential election looms. This fact may actually prove beneficial, as new administrations often bring fresh ideas, which might just be what American policy for a post-ISIS Iraq needs. Unfortunately, however, assuming past trends hold, regardless of who is elected on November 8th, Americans can still expect their next president to use military force in the Middle East, without planning adequately for what comes afterwards.

If Hillary Clinton is elected, and even if she continues to pivot American foreign policy toward China, she will still have to address problems arising in the Middle East (Clinton 2011). President Obama was determined to end America’s costly involvement in Iraq, but an unsuccessful withdrawal from Iraq and the unexpected Arab Spring taught America that getting out of the region might prove an impossible task.

If Donald Trump is elected president, he will face the same challenges. Moreover, Trump will have a much steeper learning curve than Clinton, given his lack of knowledge of the Middle East. Examples of this ignorance include confusing Iran’s Quds forces for the Kurds, incorrectly claiming Kuwait does not pay for US protection (Ghabra 2007, 341) and being unable to differentiate between Hamas and Hezbollah (Collins 2016). In addition, despite Trump’s on-again, off-again opposition to war in Iraq in 2003, he has indicated at times during this campaign, as noted above, that he would commit substantial numbers of American ground troops to Iraq to combat ISIS. However, the GOP presidential nominee’s policy flip-flops and his dearth of knowledge of the Middle East along with his bellicose rhetoric suggest that he is even more likely than Clinton to call for military action without sufficient planning for what should occur following such engagement.


Bremer III, Paul L. My Year in Iraq. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Clinton, Hillary. “America’s Pacific Century.” Foreign Policy, October 11, 2011 Accessed
October 19, 2016.

Cooper, Hellene. “U.S. to Send 600 More Troops to Iraq to Help Retake Mosul From ISIS.” The
New York Times, September 28, 2015. Accessed October 29, 2016.

Collins, Eliza. “Trump fumbles Hewitt question on terror leaders.” Politico, n.d. Accessed
October 21, 2016.

Daalder, Ivo H., and James G. Stavridis. “NATO’ s Victory in Libya.” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 2
(March 2012). Accessed October 20, 2016.

Engel, Pamela. “DONALD TRUMP: ‘I would bomb the s— out of’ ISIS.” Business Insiders,
November 15, 2015 Accessed October 20, 2016.

Ghabra, Shafeeq N. “Closing the Distance: Kuwait and the United States in the Persian Gulf”. In
The Middle East and the United States: A Historical and Political Reassessment. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2007.

Goldberg, Jeffery. “The Obama Doctrine.” The Atlantic, April 2016 Accessed November 1,

Hudson, John. “Top U.S. Official: Islamic State Has Lost 47 Percent of its Territory in
Iraq.” Foreign Policy, June 28, 2016 Accessed October 12, 2016.

Kuperman, Alan J. “Obama’s Libya Debacle.” Foreign Affairs, March 2015 Accessed October
14, 2016.

Obama, Barack. “Remarks by the President on the Situation in Libya.” the White House.
Accessed October 12, 2016.

Wehrey, Frederic. “Why Libya’s transition to democracy failed.” the Washington Post. Accessed
October 20, 2016.

Joseph (Joe) Karle

Joseph “Joe” Karle is A PhD candidate in Government and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. He earned a BS in Political Science from Central Michigan University (2010) and an MA in International Affairs (2016) from Texas A&M University.
He is interested in U.S. nation building efforts in the Middle East since 9/11, particularly the way interactions between American personnel and local leaders (governmental and military) affect the development of governance and security structures.
Joe served as a paratrooper in the .US. Army’s 3/509th Parachute Infantry Regiment and deployed to Afghanistan from 2011-2012.

Publication Date

November 3, 2016