As the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria continues, some are worried that the operation carries echoes of the U.S. rush to war in Iraq a decade ago. In addition to the fact that U.S. missiles are once again dropping on Iraq, skeptics also point to similarities such as dubious legality, the lack of UN Security Council approval and an American public frightened about potentially over-hyped national security threats.
But despite these parallels, there are a number of fundamental differences between the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the 2014 operation against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Here are a few reasons why the current campaign is much more than simply a repeat of history.
1. State vs. Non-State Target
The March 2003 invasion of Iraq targeted an established, internationally recognized state government. By contrast, the current campaign is aimed at a non-state actor, albeit one that has the misnomer 'state' in its name. The distinction is important because the two entities act in very distinct ways, are governed by different international laws and demand different strategies from the U.S. military.
In 2003, the U.S. attacked a state with clear boundaries as well as a conventional army defending its central government. The Islamic State, on the other hand, is an amorphous group that includes many foreign fighters and controls a shifting swath of territory straddling an international border. While the militant group has gone to great lengths to try and act like a state in many regards, it's very far from a real one.
Moreover, whereas coalition forces could claim a kind of victory when Baghdad fell, there's no clear sense of what defeating the Islamic State would look like.
2. Ground Troops vs. Airstrikes
At the peak of Operation Iraqi Freedom, there were over 157,000 U.S. Army personnel within the borders of Iraq. That figure dwarfs the roughly 1,600 personnel that are currently stationed in Iraq, none of whom are engaged in direct combat.
The U.S. is only using airstrikes in the current offensive against the Islamic State, and President Barack Obama has stated that he will not send combat troops to Iraq or Syria. While airpower was also an integral part of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it was used in conjunction with major movements of combat troops and artillery on the ground. In this respect, a better analogue might be the 2011 campaign against Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, in which NATO used airstrikes to support Libyan rebels rather than committing ground troops.
3. Public Opinion
According to an opinion poll conducted by CNN/ORC between Sept. 25 and 28, 73 percent of Americans support airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The country was far more divided in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when 52 to 59 percent of Americans supported the invasion and large anti-war demonstrations took place in major cities.
The discrepancy may be explained by what political scientist Marc Lynch recently described as Americans' propensity to support actions when they are framed as counterterrorism rather than war. Pointing to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs study, Lynch told radio program "On The Media" that since 1998, "support has never dropped below 70 percent" for airstrikes against terrorist groups.
4. Deposing A Dictator vs. Potentially Helping One
One of the questions about Obama's decision to expand airstrikes to Syria is how it will affect the balance of power within the war-torn country. Some Middle East observers, along with rebel groups in Syria, worry that this will have the unintended effect of bolstering President Assad's brutal grip, as the strikes are effectively targeting his enemies.
The opposite was true during the Iraq war, in which deposing the rule of Saddam Hussein was a direct aim of the U.S. and coalition effort.
5. Arab Allies
In 2003, the U.S. and its allies formed a "coalition of the willing" which, notably, lacked any Arab nations, with the exception of Qatar. The lack of participation by Arab governments undermined the operation's legitimacy, and caused opinion of the U.S. to hit unprecedented lows among Arab nations.
The current airstrikes in Syria are different in that five Arab nations are aiding the U.S., and in some cases carrying out strikes themselves. Regional support may change the way the international community perceives this operation, further distinguishing it from the 2003 invasion.
6. Multinational Fighting
While the vast majority of the combat troops in the Iraq war were American forces, according to data assembled by the Guardian, there is a concerted effort in the current campaign to share the burden and cost among nations. This comes with its own challenges, however, as multinational coalition fighting can be complex and difficult.