Regular correspondents of this space may have wondered why I haven’t been writing more recently about the events in Iraq and Syria. (Or Afghanistan, for that matter.)
The short answer is: because it’s too depressing to watch the Obama administration repeating every mistake of Kennedy and Johnson in Vietnam, but from a posture of greater weakness, greater foolishness, and – bonus! – apparent hatred for the United States.
Who wants to write about that?
We’ve reached the point at which there is nothing positive or hopeful to say. I think most readers realize that, even if they can’t fully articulate what the problems seem to be. Obama is quite literally doing nothing right, in his political-military approach to these hot spots of the Middle East. There’s nothing in his policy to work with.
The recent raid on the Islamic State prison, in which Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler, a member of the Army’s Delta Force, was killed, is an illustrative case. It cross-cuts two major concerns: the purpose of U.S. involvement (the most important), and the extent of U.S. involvement, including whether we’re “in combat” or not.
Obama has been backing into the situation from the second perspective, which is what we call a bass-ackward approach. Are we in combat yet? Are we in combat yet? Are we in combat yet? The administration has allowed the proposition to be framed with that question, which the media are obediently asking. It’s all very passive-aggressive, like this administration’s approach to so many things.
But the important question is what we’re seeking to accomplish. What’s our purpose, our goal, our objective?
It sure ain’t degrading and defeating ISIS. If that were our goal, we’d be doing more than bombing a few targets here and there, and sending a few commandos along with the Kurds to raid an ISIS prison.
Raiding prisons does absolutely nothing to degrade and defeat ISIS. Raiding prisons isn’t even a symmetrical response to what ISIS is doing. It’s not asymmetrical; it’s sub-symmetrical. It’s like trying to fight ISIS with the old ladies’ knitting society and prison ministry.
Getting an American soldier killed for that, with no larger context – no decisive political objective – to make it worthwhile, is an unconscionable misuse of our troops’ lives. This is real life, not Star Trek. We don’t send our military forces out to die so that other people don’t have to. That’s not what military force is for.
Getting caught up in the dynamics of a local conflict is not what U.S. military force is for either. There is no rule of politics or military operations that says we have to restrict our level and nature of fighting to the best the Kurds can do against ISIS. In fact, if we’re not going in to alter the dynamics of the local fight, and force decision where the Kurds or other militias can’t, we’re not doing what only America can do – and therefore, we’re doing it wrong.
And so: we’re doing it wrong. Regrettably – appallingly – it just keeps getting wronger.
There is utility in measuring how much combat we’re actually in, because that’s a crude measure of how big a price we’re going to pay for doing things wrong. Up to now, Obama has been triangulating languidly to keep the shooting reality of combat just beyond weapons range from our troops, as much as possible. The price of backing ourselves into a shooting war in which we have no positive objective has been relatively low.
But that’s changing, with his Vietnam-style announcement today (previewed by Howard Portnoy at LU) that we’re going to put a 50-soldier contingent of Special Forces “on the ground” in Syria to “advise” the local forces.
This change (to the extent that it is a change, and not just a fresh statement about things we’re already doing) is happening in a worse situation than what we faced as little as 90 days ago. Russia and Iran are now in Syria openly, in force, fighting a major action against the very rebels we have been sort of spraying half-gulped promises at. They are also making free use of key regions of Iraq, including Iraqi air space. Iran is openly backing (and leading) combat forces in Iraq, and Russia has sponsored the formation of a joint Russian-Iranian-Iraqi command headquarters in Baghdad. These guys are serious.
For our part, the U.S. has joined forces with Turkey to open a new front in northern Syria – which along with the announcement of the Iran “deal” in mid-July was one of two precipitating events that brought Russia into Syria and Iraq this summer, with heavy forces and decisive intentions.
We pulled a big gun, and now Russia has pulled her own. In this context, there is no such thing as “intensifying” our commitment on the margins without producing escalation. Russia’s determination has to keep hardening.
But pay attention here, please. It’s not so much that we could end up fighting against Russia. Heck, we’re sitting down to the negotiating table with Russia as you read this.
What’s virtually certain now is that we’ll end up in an even worse situation: with our troops trying to accomplish some sort of narrow, unexecutable tactical objectives from Obama, but being constrained by the terms of UN-brokered operational, theater-sharing agreements with Russia – and Iran.
It’s not too much to say that in some ways, we’ll be working for Russia and Iran. Unlike Obama, Russia and Iran do have specific political goals in both Syria and Iraq. They have no intention of fighting just to get to January 2017 without breaking too much. They’re in town to win. If we don’t get out of the way, we will perforce end up serving their ends.
This prospect takes the ghosts of Vietnam past and turns them into something more like a zombie chainsaw massacre – not for our troops, necessarily, but certainly for the real interests of American security.
We do have legitimate reason to be very concerned, in the meantime, about the exposure of our troops to ISIS and other non-state jihadists, as well as to fire from the other nation-state forces in the theater. No one is afraid now of what America might do if our troops are killed (or taken hostage). Ask yourself what Obama has done about any Americans in peril, anywhere, in the last six-odd years.
The day is long gone when someone could legitimately suggest that it was intemperate to put things in these terms. We’ve reached the point where not recognizing reality is simply foolish. It doesn’t matter what Obama or his spokesmen say. What matters is the facts on the ground. And those fact are now uniformly unfavorable for the execution of any sort of American policy in Syria and Iraq: i.e., policy that advances American interests in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, that makes this the worst possible time to increase our forces’ exposure to combat. Maybe our luck will hold, against the odds. But counting on that is terribly irresponsible. “Are we in combat yet?” may not be the first question we should ask, but it’s the one that will govern whether body bags start arriving in Dover again.