Maintaining Resolve

There is a lot of meat in Brian Fishman’s post at War Is Boring, “Don’t BS the American People About Iraq, Syria, and ISIL”. I recommend you read it in full. This post isn’t a critique of his but it’s not an affirmation of it, either. It falls into the cateogry of riffing on the theme that he’s begun.

I completely agree with him that President Obama’s objectives in are not to roll back ISIL or to take the first steps in a lengthy campaign to do so but what are his objectives? I can only speculate and my speculations would be:

  1. To fend off political charges that he’s not doing anything.
  2. To protect our consulate in Erbil and other U. S. assets in Iraq.
  3. To protect Iraqi civilians.

I’ve been criticized for suggesting the first objective with some characterizing it as a “charge” or an accusation. I see it as the commensensical observation that Barack Obama is a politician and politicians always act with political objectives in mind. I think that believing otherwise is hopelessly naive.

Should we engage in a long-term campaign with “boots on the ground” and the full support of the American people to oppose ISIL? While I certainly agree with this:

We should only fight if we are fighting to win, and we will only win when we commit as a country—not 51 percent, or the viewers of one cable news station or another, or because one party or faction has managed to back a president into a political corner. The country must be ready to accept the sacrifices necessary to achieve grand political ends. Until then, any call to “defeat ISIL” that is not forthright about what that will require is actually an argument for expensive failure.

but I remain skeptical that the kind of commitment he’s looking for will ever be forthcoming in modern America in which the news, the message is uncontrolled. For every image of an enemy atrocity there will be an equally (or even more) horrifying image of an American atrocity. It is not possible to maintain resolve in the face of lack of control over information.

But what happens then? Successful intervention may have become impossible but non-intervention requires steeling ourselves to the nightly parade of beheadings, murders, rapes, and maimings that we can be quite certain will come. Not intervening requires a particular sort of political courage that we simply don’t elect presidents to have any more.

6 comments… add one
  • TastyBits Link

    I have a problem with the people who claim Libya, Syria, Ukraine, ISIS, whatever are existential, but they do not have the will to eliminate the threat. They are only willing to do a half-assed job.

    If I have a rodent problem, I put out some rat traps or poison. If the rats have bubonic plague, I make damn sure I kill every last one of them. If a few birds or the neighbors cat dies, too bad, so sad. It should not have been in my house.

    If ISIS is a problem, exterminate them. If ISIS is the problem that it is claimed to be, a lot of people are going to die, and if they are not stopped, it is claimed those will be Americans. If this claim is true, collateral damage should not be an issue.

    Any areas where they exist should be leveled. ISIS has money in banks. Take that money. Sanction the countries funding them, and use military action if necessary. Bomb a Saudi town to get their attention. Drone a Saudi prince.

    If Russia is a problem and Europe will not sanction Russia, sanction Europe. It may cause some economic pain for the US, but if Russia is such a problem, the US should be willing to sacrifice. No pain, no gain.

    The first step would be a military buildup. The cost would be astronomical, and taxes would need to be raised substantially. When the problem reaches this level, I will take notice.

  • steve Link

    Nice article. I think he is correct that rolling back IS, whatever you really mean by that, would involve troops in the 100,000-200,000 range, operating on both sides of the Syria border, take years and cost billions of dollars, plus the loss of American lives. I don’t see that as something the American people would, or should support. We already, in a sense, tried this. Didn’t work. At some point we have to leave and the same dynamics and tensions that exist in the Iraq/Syria area will still exist. Could we change this by staying 30-40 years? Maybe, but I doubt it and it is not an experiment I want to engage in.

    So, I think our best course is a limited action. We have a least some reason to believe that many Iraqis do not want to be ruled by IS. If they are willing to fight our aid should be more than sufficient to stop IS. Then, it is up to the Iraqis to decide if they want to roll them back. If they really want to be ruled by a bunch of barbarians there isn’t much we can do about that. If they really want them to go, they did it before and with our limited aid they should be able to do it again. Plus, if they have to earn it maybe they will value it.


  • Andy Link

    Overall Fishman’s article is good but I think he falls into the false choice between a total commitment or no commitment and only in terms of a US military approach to defeating ISIL. This all or nothing view false and misleading – False because it assumes the key factor in ISIL’s military defeat is US political commitment in terms of forces and time – a bizarre, yet common, view from the think-tank crowd.

    In reality, even if he got everything on his commitment wish-list, the US would still probably lose over the long term. ISIL is an organization optimized to survive against what would be a large, foreign and conventional occupying army, so even if we had the national commitment he talks about, it wouldn’t result in victory at the strategic level. The historical track record on that is pretty clear.

    He’s also wrong about airpower – like many he’s learned nothing about modern air operations over the last two decades – an coherent indigenous force backed by a few specialists and fire support from aircraft could militarily defeat ISIL. We did it in Afghanistan and we did it in Libya. The problem, however, is the same with the total US commitment option – military victory on an operational level is not the same thing as victory on the political-strategic level, which is just what we got in both Afghanistan and Libya.

    Then there is the fact the ISIL isn’t a homogenous group. They have the support of Iraqi Sunni’s as well as parts of the old Baathist officer corps. So, if we are going to fight ISIL militarily, we need to realize we are not just fighting the savages who like lopping people’s heads off, but we’d also be fighting a non-trivial portion of the local population of the state formerly known as “Iraq.”

    Secondly, his false choice is misleading because it ignores (or is unaware of) other approaches including limited military options and non-military and non-US approaches. Unfortunately, US domestic politics is not friendly to long-term indirect strategies, or anything that requires strategic patience.

  • ... Link

    “ISIL is an organization optimized to survive against what would be a large, foreign and conventional occupying army….”

    I keep wondering about the OCCUPYING part. Why occupy these places for anything longer than to carry out short, punitive missions. Go in, kill who you think needs killing, destroy what you think needs destroyed, and leave. If you want to install a token government before leaving, fine.

    But why occupy places like Iraq or Afghanistan? Smash them up badly enough, and they’ll come to regard the US as a plague of locusts that CAN be avoided.

  • steve Link

    “Smash them up badly enough, and they’ll come to regard the US as a plague of locusts that CAN be avoided.”

    You need an occupying size force to “smash them up”. Maybe. They will just as likely leave the area then come back once we leave. The people who will really learn to regard us as a plague of locusts are the civilians in the area who we are ostensibly trying to aid and protect. It took us 8 years the first time we were there to “smash them up”. Didn’t last.


  • PD Shaw Link

    “other approaches including limited military options and non-military and non-US approaches.”

    I saw a video of an ISIS member challenging Obama to send U.S. troops to be defeated again and telling Obama he would be a coward to send drones.

    I think we should send drones.

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