"Limited, specific, and achievable" — that is how one unnamed official described the military option in Iraq, last Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014.
Of course, the war in Iraq is supposed to be over. It was called "Operation Iraqi Freedom" until its name was changed in 2010 to "Operation New Dawn." It ended in December of 2011, in its eighth year, with the American death toll standing just shy of 5,000.
It did not bring "Iraqi Freedom." The "New Dawn" may now officially be labeled a new nightmare. President George W. Bush officially declared victory — "Mission accomplished" — little more than a month into the war, completing the initial invasion, sending Saddam Hussein into hiding, but also having found no weapons of mass destruction. That was the first phase of the war.
The second phase — the part that we finally declared over, the part in which we suffered all but 139 of our total military losses — was the fight against the extremist insurgency. We left, but it never ended.
What happened this week is that in response to death threats from the truly terrifying ISIS, some 40,000 men, women and children took refuge on a mountaintop where they are now dying of heat and starvation. We were reportedly waiting for the current failed leader to step down before taking any military action, but meanwhile, these people are dying.
And all of this raises a pretty basic question that is applicable not only to Iraq: What in the world are we doing?
Protecting American interests, of course. It's been 20 years since I wrote Q and A's for candidates, but the short answer hasn't changed. The harder question, always, has been what that means.
It means fighting terrorists who would kill us, wherever they are. That part of the answer — though surely not the task — is easy.
"Do you believe in using military force for nation building?" is another one of those old standards in debate prep books. No, of course not, every candidate says; we are not the world's police force.
Of course — and this is the part where candidates start fudging. In some instances, the only answer to terrorism is a stable government that does not provide a refuge for terrorists or allow its country to be turned into a terrorist state.
And the other benefit of such a government, of a "political solution," as it's sometimes labeled, is that people don't have to flee to a mountaintop and die of heat and starvation because their town has been taken over by anti-Christian, anti-everything-but-them killers.
So that's what we tried to achieve in Iraq, even if no one wanted to admit it, and that is also what we seem to be trying to achieve in Afghanistan, where a general was killed this past week, the highest ranking officer to be killed in combat since Vietnam. He was training Afghan forces to defend against insurgents when an insurgent opened fire. It does not seem to be working there, either.
Even as he was explicitly announcing that the military option is on the table, the White House press secretary also said: "There are no American military solutions to the problems in Iraq. These problems can only be solved with Iraqi political solutions."
And therein lies the rub. We tried. If there were an American military solution to the problems in Iraq, the tens of thousands of young American men and women who served our country there would have found it. Iraq wasn't a military failure; it was the mission — or lack thereof — that was all wrong.
On the other hand, when 40,000 people are dying on a mountaintop because of their religious beliefs, threatened with death by terrorist haters, do we let them die, do we drop food, or do we drop bombs on those who are threatening them?
"Limited, specific, and achievable." Maybe we can save some lives.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.