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Obama’s ‘no troops’ vow is unrealistic

Monday 22 September 2014



There is a proverb that if you sit by the river long enough, you will eventually see the body of your enemy floating by. Similarly, observe Washington long enough, you will see politicians reversing themselves on their most cherished beliefs.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, suggested that the United States might alter its position on the deployment of American troops in the fight against ISIS.

Dempsey stated, about President Barack Obama, “He has told me as well to come back to him on a case-by-case basis. If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [ISIS] targets, I’ll recommend that to the president.”

While the chairman was speaking only about troops accompanying their Iraqi counterparts, not large contingents of American forces engaged directly in battle with ISIS, the ambiguities in Dempsey’s remarks had many observers wondering how the U.S. role in Iraq and Syria might change. Indeed, Congress will pass legislation to fund the arming and training of “moderate” Syrian rebels, but the House will affirm it does not support placing troops on the ground.

The White House sought to play down Dempsey’s remarks, describing what the chairman had said as a “purely hypothetical scenario.” But very subtly he had managed to shift the goal posts. By suggesting that the president was willing to consider using troops on a case-by-case basis, he showed that the administration was preparing for circumstances that could change.

American reluctance to send soldiers into new wars is understandable. But as a reluctant Obama prepares for a campaign against ISIS, it is noticeable how American political desires are constantly blindsided by reality. Where there are those in Washington who feel their country can deal with the world almost contractually, the fact is that the likes of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are not lawyers.

Was it a good idea for the Obama administration to say that it would not send ground troops to fight ISIS? True, it did not want to undermine domestic support for the anti-ISIS campaign. However, like Obama’s policy in Afghanistan, where he set a deadline for an American pullout, when you tell the enemy what your constraints are, he adapts his strategy accordingly.

President Bill Clinton learned this in Kosovo in 1998-1999. Initially he was publicly very reluctant to deploy ground forces there. Slobodan Milosevic saw that all he had to do was hold out. Only when the administration began planning for a ground war did Milosevic capitulate. That, anyway, is the view of Gen. Wesley Clark, the NATO commander who led the campaign.

War is about will, and someone like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is not going to be impressed when the American priority is to limit casualties and stick to what is politically safe. That’s not to say he will triumph, but for all of George W. Bush’s errors in Iraq, his forces made headway when it became apparent that they were prepared to prevail against their opponents, whatever it took. And in that sense they succeeded, leaving Iraq far more secure than when they entered in 2003. However, such a narrative is not one the Obama administration embraces, even as the American military revives ties that were formed at the time with Sunni tribes, in order to strike against ISIS.

The big question mark is Syria. In Iraq there are forces that can take advantage of American air power, but not so, or not yet, in Syria. Obama’s plan to arm “moderates” has many people shaking their heads, but the president’s options are few. He should have done this long ago when the extremists were much weaker, but Obama was so busy trying to avoid Syria, that he helped create the very situation he is wrestling with today.

The war against ISIS will be a long one, and Obama would do best not to tie his own hands. Sending American ground forces to the Middle East may not be on the agenda now, or ever, but there is no point in ruling it out indefinitely, in all situations. What is politically expedient is one thing; but what is best for the military itself may be something quite different. The president undoubtedly wants to avoid mission creep, but his approach should not be defined solely by what he seeks to avoid, but by what he needs in order to achieve the aims he has set for himself.

For instance, Obama has made extensive use of the American Joint Special Operations Command all over the world to assassinate or capture alleged terrorists. JSOC units were dispatched to Syria in the failed effort to liberate journalist James Foley. Does it make any sense for Obama to affirm that such units would not be used against ISIS, when one of the roles of JSOC is to engage precisely in that sort of intervention?

Obama is not about to invade Arab countries, as Bush did. However, drifting to the other extreme of hesitating to do anything on the ground militarily is hardly the solution for the proliferating risk represented by ISIS. Dempsey implicitly showed the shortcomings of adopting too definite a position, and soon enough expect Obama to start doing the same.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.


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