In this hyperpartisan age, there is one point of agreement between Republicans and Democrats on foreign policy–that is, in addition to the newfound conviction that Congress need not exercise its constitutional authority over war: namely, that there shall be no “boots on the ground in Iraq.” It is a view requiring immediate clarification: there may be more U.S. soldiers fighting in Iraq, but no combat troops will be sent.
President Barack Obama offered that reassurance in his addresses to the nation. His former rival, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), said the same in an interview with the BBC on Hard Talk this week. No one, he said testily, was proposing sending U.S. combat troops to Iraq. And they have their finger on the American pulse–and the polls: nearly two-thirds support fighting ISIS, but only one-third supports sending combat troops to the region.
The distinction between “troops” and “combat troops” turns out to be politically convenient–and one that I will leave more qualified people to explain. Suffice it to say that it is probably a distinction easily fudged. And it is far from clear that merely bombing ISIS is going to be enough to “degrade” the proto-state, much less “destroy” it. Just ask Israel (and the Palestinians) whether superior air power alone is sufficient to destroy a terror network.
The war that Obama is asking Americans to endorse is exactly the kind most prone to “mission creep”–and, it must be said while wishing fervently otherwise, to failure. It is true that sending troops to fight in Iraq might, as David Frum points out, have some unpleasant strategic consequences. But if we accept that we cannot avoid this conflict, our task is to wrestle with those strategic problems in advance, not to attempt to win half a war.
Strategy is something that both the Obama administration, and the George W. Bush administration before it, have proved quite incapable of figuring out. The policymakers who took the U.S. to war in Iraq had–contrary to the left’s fevered conspiracy theories–good intentions and a good-faith belief that they were fighting a massive terror threat. The immediacy of that threat obscured the likelihood that Iran could benefit from Saddam’s fall.
Likewise, Obama is now “declaring war” on ISIS for some good reasons but without a larger strategic vision. Of course only Congress can declare war, but the same House of Representatives that is suing the president for usurping it on Obamacare shows little interest in defending its powers here. Americans may soon find that “no boots on the ground” is the new “you can keep your doctor” promise–one made, this time, by both parties.
For years, Americans have been clamoring for two things from their leaders: smaller government, and more honest government. Even with Republicans in charge, neither of those demands has been met. No leader–certainly not in the Republican opposition–has the courage today to tell Americans that to restore some kind of stability to the Middle East, “boots on the ground” will be required at some level, if only to defend pro-U.S. forces.
It is a message that might require political skill to deliver. Even FDR, who believed that American entry into World War II was inevitable, had to slow-walk U.S. involvement through the halfway house of Lend-Lease until Pearl Harbor suddenly, terribly, changed everything. Yet after so many years of fighting terror–really, not just since 9/11 but since the Iranian revolution of 1979–it is past time for a president to tell Americans the truth.