The next turning point in the new Iraq War will be when President Barack Obama and Congress decide whether to maintain their promise to send no American ground troops.
If they hold firm, an early diplomatic settlement may be forced on them since the Iraqi armed forces cannot stop the "clear, build and hold" strategy of the Islamic State. Iraq's Shiite forces cannot, or will not, defend Sunni areas, and Iraq's Kurds are fighting to defend their territory.
Iraq's faltering regime may buckle altogether, or sink into a sectarian civil war, which will partition the country.
The Pentagon, the neo-cons and most Republicans are pushing for more ground troops to be sent to Iraq, and even Syria. If Obama and the Democrats yield, it's a political win for his enemies. If Obama holds firm, he will be blamed for "losing" Iraq.
Public pressure against re-sending thousands of American troops for a third Iraq War is the surest way to bring the war to an end.
Those with memories of past wars know that we have been here once before, with the most dire of consequences. In 1964, President Johnson campaigned for election on a firm promise that he would send no young American men to fight a ground war in Southeast Asia. At the same time, he began planning to invade. A future full of promise spiraled out of control.
Whether Johnson knew what he was doing or was stampeded by his advisers doesn't matter ultimately. (Years later, he would demand to know how Vietnam happened.)
The similarity is that three times, in 2006, 2008, and 2012, Americans have issued a voter mandate to end or "wind down" these recurring wars. The public favors US bombing against the Islamic State, at least for now, but seems solidly against an escalation by US ground troops. That attitude might be shaken by more IS atrocities combined with panic at the collapse of Baghdad. Or an attitude of "enough is enough" might deepen.
All we know is that the War Lobby has the momentum. But from the perspective of the "long peace movement," their position is weakening by the year.
Peace forces already have succeeded in placing sharp limits on the Pentagon and government's powers. The US has steadily reduced the American ground troop numbers from 500,000 in the first Gulf War to about 1,200 over a broader battlefield today.
In the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Bush 1 administration dispatched 500,000 troops to push the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and back to Baghdad.
In the Afghanistan War (2001 to the present), our government committed 100,000 troops and NATO another 50,000, which have been reduced to 35,000 thus far with no victory over the Taliban in sight.
In the second Iraq War (2003-2012), 150,000 US troops and thousands of NATO auxiliaries were reduced to nearly zero by 2013, without having stabilized an alternative to sectarian civil war before our troops finally departed.
In the multi-year Syrian chapter of the conflict, the American role has been clandestine, indirect and so far inconclusive.
In Libya, the US assistance in overthrowing the dictator Kaddafi was limited to air strikes, logistics, and the CIA and Special-Ops. It has resulted in a tribal civil war and spreading chaos in the region.
The newest war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is unpredictable for the moment, but already shows the serious limits on America's military capacity, limits imposed partly by latent anti-war sentiment among Americans at home. The mainstream media almost unanimously calls this public mood "fatigue", a new analog to the "Vietnam syndrome." The framing implies that the American people have lose their martial spirit. In another view, the American public is showing a maturity lacking in the political elite: that it's time to cut our losses in unwinnable, unaffordable wars involving religious fanatics.
The contradictions threaten to "bedevil Obama", according to a New York Times headline. If there are no reliable US or non-US ground troops for the new war, and American bombing alone can't obliterate ISIS, that will force a confrontation with the Pentagon warlords and political hawks.
Will Obama and Congress be able to hold to a "no ground troops" pledge amidst a media and military panic that ISIS is at the gates of Baghdad?
The policy confrontation might come as soon as this winter, after the mid-term elections. The president, the Congress, and all aspirants for high office in 2016, will have to stake out their positions at the brink of a new war.