By Fred Benson
Decisions to go or not go to war are enmeshed in a fog of uncertainty. The perceived threat, desired outcomes, enemy capabilities, strategic options, resources required, casualties expected and national will are hotly debated. In retrospect, we don’t always fully understand what we are getting into.
Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara admitted in his 1995 mea culpa that our Vietnam policy had been “wrong, terribly wrong.” Worse yet, he had reached that conclusion in May 1967, when he warned President Lyndon Johnson that “The picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring 1,000 non-combatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny, backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed, is not a pretty one. It could conceivably produce a costly distortion in the American national consciousness and in the world image of the United States.” The most disturbing element of his admission was that he chose to retain responsibility for the conduct of the war for another five years, during which 35,000 more U.S. soldiers and an estimated 1.3 million Vietnamese civilians were killed.
A more recent about-face was heard from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had lobbied hard not only to deploy forces to Afghanistan but also to invade Iraq in 2003. Rumsfeld criticized President George W. Bush’s goal for that military intervention: “The idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic. I was concerned about it when I first heard those words.”
Will we hear a senior administration official utter something similar about ISIS a few years from now? An objective analysis of our ability to accomplish the nationally stated goal of “degrading and ultimately defeating ISIS” suggests that we are still dealing with great uncertainty of outcomes and strategies. President Obama recently announced that he would send 450 additional troops to train and advise Iraqi forces. What his plan does not do is allow American forces to accompany Iraqi fighters in battle or provide observers to call in airstrikes, actions that would surely improve both the battle competency of Iraqi troops and a frustratingly low target acquisition and bombing rate.
There are four key questions which must be answered to define a firm rationale and strategy for our effort to defeat ISIS. First, is there a clear and present danger to the United States of allowing ISIS to gain an unfettered presence and influence in Iraq? Yes. It is broadly accepted that the defeat of ISIS is essential to U.S. national security, as Iraq will – as recent events have demonstrated – become a safe haven for terrorist training activities designed to kill Americans and other westerners throughout the world.
Second, is Iraq capable of defeating ISIS on its own? No. There has been little measurable degradation of ISIS as its forces continue to wreak havoc on a significant portion of Iraq, largely because Iraqi forces have rarely shown the will to stand their ground. These retreating forces have left behind large quantities of U.S.-provided weaponry, even when confronted by far inferior numbers of ISIS fighters.
Third, is the United States willing to send brigade or division-sized combat units into the region and take the battle directly to ISIS? Not likely. It is understandable that Obama is reluctant to reintroduce regular combat troops into Iraq after having pressed so hard to end our involvement in 2011. It is also obvious that a significant percentage of Americans support the president’s position.
Fourth, is it possible that ISIS could be defeated with just the 3,500 U.S. trainers and advisors presently committed to assisting the Iraqi forces? Doubtful, as currently structured.
Obama is, for the moment, limiting the level of U.S. involvement to that with the lowest likelihood of U.S. casualties while keeping open the more forceful, but risky option of embedding American advisors and forward observers in Iraqi units. By delaying implementation of a heavier U.S. military presence, he is attempting to force the al-Abadi government to toughen up its ground forces and establish closer ties to the Sunni and Kurd populations, actions thought necessary in building a cohesive Iraqi counterforce to ISIS. But there is, however, a limit to the time we can wait for those improvements.
With ISIS growing stronger, maintaining an ineffective status quo may soon become tantamount to a decision that defeating ISIS is not that important after all.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. [email protected]