A former commander of U.S. Central Command, Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, was categorical on NBC’s Meet the Press this morning: it wouldn’t take that big a force to eject ISIS from Iraq.
He’s concerned that we’re unable to have a serious public discussion of the issue, however.
“The boots on the ground question is always the toughest one,” Zinni said. “I wish we were not so paranoid about boots on the ground. We can’t even define it! There’s going to have to be special operations forces,” even with air strikes.
“Very simply put, if you put two brigades on the ground of U.S. forces, they would push ISIS back to Syria in a heartbeat and probably take less time, less cost, and I think in the long run fewer casualties overall.”
Zinni, who commanded CENTCOM from 1997 to 2000, is known for outspokenness. He was a popular commentator on the MSM opinion circuit in the mid-2000s, when he offered blunt criticism of the Bush administration’s Iraq War strategy. Although he reportedly supported the surge in 2007, he was so often quoted as a severe critic of interagency processes in Washington that Americans can be forgiven for not realizing he thought the surge was a good idea.
Indeed, Zinni can be something of a contrarian, focused on rejecting orthodoxies, such as the common reference to the Iraq surge as a “strategy” (see links above). It wasn’t a strategy, said Zinni; it was a tactic. And that mattered, because in spite of the good done by the surge, we still lacked adequate attention to our overall strategy for Iraq and the larger Middle East.
That point of his comes to mind now. I’m not fully convinced that it would take only two brigades to “push ISIS back to Syria,” although I do think it could be done without getting enmeshed in a “quagmire.” But the potential for a quagmire is still at issue, because the next question is: then what? If ISIS is pushed into Syria, how is Iraq to be secured — and what will Iraq even be? The Kurds have essentially cordoned off their own state in order to defend it against ISIS; Iran has forces deployed in Iraq more overtly than ever before in the modern era; the central government in Baghdad has shown with pathetic clarity that it is unable to defend Iraqi territory or hold a governing coalition together. The quagmire would be encountered in the attempt to harden Iraq against a return of ISIS.
And, of course, ISIS couldn’t really be contained inside Syria. Everyone around Syria — Turkey, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon — would have to worry about spillover from ISIS operations there. I think Zinni knows it wouldn’t be enough to just push ISIS westward. But he’s like most of us: he doesn’t have a ready answer or a comprehensive strategic vision for what it would take to decisively eliminate the ISIS threat.
The ISIS threat is not the same thing as the Ba’athist threat or the Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq threat that haunted Iraq in the years between the 2003 invasion and the 2007 surge. But the difficulty of finding an effective strategic approach to those predecessor threats is highly informative now, because the ISIS threat has similar qualities of intransigence and regional embeddedness. Basically, to invoke Zinni’s own criticism of the Bush operation, it’s easy enough to say we could push ISIS back with two brigades, just as it was easy enough to say we could depose Saddam. But then what? What’s the strategy? What, in fact, is the objective?
In the years after the 2003 invasion, Victor Davis Hanson wrote on a number of occasions about the statesman’s conundrum of having only bad choices and worse ones. He was right then, and his point remains powerful today, as I think anyone with an honest perspective recognizes that there are no obviously “good” choices to make about ISIS. It is all the more remarkable, in that light, that George W. Bush went ahead and made decisions and took action. Barack Obama hasn’t done so — but the criticism of him for that isn’t because it would be easy to know what to do, or easy to do it.
On the contrary, it is very difficult. The difficulty lies in the fact that the tactical approach is the least of our worries. There is nothing militarily immovable about ISIS. Hit ISIS with concentrated military power and it will retreat. But that won’t sap its will, or make its local neighbors able to fend it off when it tries again. The only thing that will defeat ISIS is a stronger will: a will that can stand up to setbacks, criticism, and difficulty. Bush 43 angered his domestic political opponents by having such a will, and refusing to be undone by their relentless campaign against his policies. Obama, by contrast, is more apt to spend his time pointing out how complex it all is, and complaining about his critics.
It’s not to indict General Zinni that I make these points. He isn’t wrong to observe that there are military actions of moderate scope that could feasibly be taken. But his comment serves to highlight how unimportant that actually is when the will to take on the policy and strategy dilemmas is lacking. Surely Americans are reaching a teachable moment in which we can learn from this.