The New York Times editorial board has finally awakened to Obama’s “strategy” in the “war” (as it is officially called now) against ISIS. It is essentially the same strategy that has guided literally hundreds of US military operations abroad since World War II: achieve the maximum objective with the minimum commitment of US power and prestige. Trouble is, the strategy rarely works, mainly because the enemy won’t cooperate and friendly forces are either inept or unpopular (or both). Thus begins the slippery slope to wider and deeper involvement.
The testimony of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is what got the Times’ attention: “If we got to the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.” A few days later the army chief of staff, General Ray Odierno, chimed in: “You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them [IS forces] out.” In short, Obama’s supposed commitment not to deploy US ground troops to combat in Iraq or Syria—“a profound mistake,” he said September 7—is as firm as mud. As happened in Vietnam, there will be “advisers,” more and more of them, as it becomes plain that the mini-max strategy of relying on air power to “degrade and destroy” ISIS proves insufficient.
Even without Dempsey’s and Odierno’s remarks, the Times and others should have seen the handwriting on the wall. The widening of air targets from those originally announced (they were supposed to be limited to protecting threatened populations and US personnel); the increasing number of US advisers; the avoidance of a Congressional vote on war powers; the quick resort to air strikes in Syria, without United Nations or Syrian authorization; the shift in categorizing the conflict, from a “counterterrorism” operation to “war”; the shrill voices of pro-war Republicans and former military officers tied to defense contractors—all these suggested the Vietnam model of mission creep.
President Obama has followed in George W. Bush’s footsteps by indicating that the war against terrorism will extend well beyond his presidency. Recall Bush’s speech to West Point cadets in 2006, which I quoted in post #45: “The war began on my watch. But it’s going to end on your watch.” Now here is Obama on September 12: “This [conflict] will be a problem for the next president, and probably the one after that.” At the UN on September 23, Obama formally upgraded the “problem” of ISIS to an historic venture, saying it would determine “whether the nations here today will be able to renew the purpose of the UN’s founding; and whether we will come together to reject the cancer of violent extremism.” He spoke as though announcing the start of World War III.
ISIS poses a serious threat to various governments in the Middle East, but it is not a national security threat to the United States. Though several governments are now said to be contributing to the US air strikes in Iraq and Syria, make no mistake: This is an American operation, just like the two Gulf Wars and Afghanistan. (On the fiction of a coalition effort, see www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/world/middleeast/us-is-carrying-out-vast-majority-of-strikes-on-isis-military-officials-say.html.) Take away US control and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the others would actually have to defend themselves. Interviewed on “60 Minutes” Sunday, Obama acknowledged US leadership of the war, but said that has always been the case and—in an eerie echo of a famous Madeleine Albright remark—“we are the indispensable nation.”
The perceptive observer Ahmed Rashid has written that governments and publics throughout the Middle East, most certainly including those now being counted on to support the latest “coalition of the willing,” are deeply suspicious of and hateful toward the US. (Thanks to Benon Sevan in Cyprus for forwarding Rashid’s latest article, http://blogs.ft.com/the-a-list/2014/09/16/us-must-work-harder-to-win-over-arab-regimes-on-isis/.) As much as they fear ISIS, Rashid writes, they don’t trust the US after watching it fumble and stumble in Iraq and Syria; and they worry about associating with the US and becoming a target of pro-ISIS groups in their own country. Professor Mark Katz, reporting about a conference he attended in Riyadh, adds to this picture: Influential people in the Arabian Gulf states tend to blame the US for the rise of ISIS, believe dealing with ISIS is therefore mainly a US responsibility, and point to other security issues that are equally important to them (such as the unstable situation in Yemen, Shi’a extremism, and of course the Palestianian-Israeli conflict) (http://katzeyeview.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/arabian-gulf-and-regional-challenges-conference-report/.)
Hamid Karzai, the departing president of Afghanistan, took a large swipe at the US in a talk to his cabinet the other day. He said the US and the West generally fought in Afghanistan for their own reasons, not for Afghanistan. “It is not our war, and there is no fight among the Afghans.” If the US and Pakistan wanted peace, they could produce it, he said. “Ungracious” and “ungrateful,” the US ambassador to Afghanistan responded. Yes, considering the enormous amount of money and the thousands of casualties the US has sacrificed there. But perceptions count: Karzai’s mistrust of the Americans, never far from the surface, no doubt speaks for many Afghans as well as people in neighboring countries.
So the bottom-line question: Is it sensible, and in the US national interest, to support ever-deepening intervention in the Middle East? Does anyone believe a military solution to the ISIS advance is possible or desirable, particularly inasmuch as ISIS arose out of three civil wars (in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq) that can only be resolved by political agreements?
For reference: The Congressional Research Office has just published Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2014 (http://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R42738.pdf). Although we’re all aware of how often the US dispatches the military abroad, you might be surprised to see how many hundreds of times it has happened—and only eleven times by declaration of war.