Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Can Obama avoid mission creep in Iraq?

By Julian Zelizer
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
An Iraqi child walks through a displacement camp Saturday, June 28, in Khazair, Iraq. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria. An Iraqi child walks through a displacement camp Saturday, June 28, in Khazair, Iraq. Vast swaths of northern Iraq, including the cities of Mosul and Tal Afar, have fallen as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, advances toward Baghdad, the capital. The ISIS militants want to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, in the region, stretching from Iraq into northern Syria.
HIDE CAPTION
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
<<
<
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
>
>>
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. Experience "The Sixties" on CNN on Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Join a Facebook Q&A with CNN military analyst James "Spider" Marks on how Vietnam changed the way America goes to war, tonight at 9 p.m. ET on Facebook.com/CNN.

(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
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1356 GMT (2156 HKT)
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2015 GMT (0415 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1928 GMT (0328 HKT)
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1417 GMT (2217 HKT)
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
July 19, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1755 GMT (0155 HKT)
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1953 GMT (0353 HKT)
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1933 GMT (0333 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1011 GMT (1811 HKT)
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1214 GMT (2014 HKT)
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 2016 GMT (0416 HKT)
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1729 GMT (0129 HKT)
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1804 GMT (0204 HKT)
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1518 GMT (2318 HKT)
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0124 GMT (0924 HKT)
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
July 16, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT