In spite of all the podium-slapping cries for melting ISIS into the sand, the odd thing about campaign 2016 is how often candidates have failed to mention to the audience, the moderators, and each other whether they support ground troops sent into Syria or Iraq. Mostly, when the topic comes up with specificity, the answer is no, the US should not send soldiers en masse to these places.
There is no good solution to the horror that is ISIS. Certainly, the Russian, Iranian, and Iraqi forces now fighting US-backed rebels in Syria are proof that there is no sane and or even coherent policy at play there.
It’s not so odd that even the spittle-drenched warhawks are mostly reluctant to say “let’s get troops on the ground.” The feeling that the war in Iraq was a mistake grew slowly, but it has grown in the the last decade to reach a majority. Afghanistan and Iraq are both now regretted wars. Initial Syrian intervention to topple Assad was averted when it felt inevitable. (Libya happened, but was oddly ignored. Still is, in fact.)
Before the Paris terrorist attacks, and the lone wolf couple in San Bernardino, CA made their bloody marks, most people seemed okay with giving ISIS a wide, tragic berth. Since then, politically it’s become more and more popular to intervene in the disaster we have made. However, there is still a feeling of restraint and cautiousness, at least relative to previous cowboy adventure.
The US is burnt out. The American people are, too. Bombs are in, troops are out. Even the hawkish-sounding Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stop short of demanding the unspeakable – boots on the ground. The term we cannot say. The one which commits American soldiers to death. The more detailed way of saying “quagmire” and “disaster.”
A recent piece in US News and World Report accurately summed up the strange mood among politicians which suggests that it’s all or nothing in terms of commitments to fighting ISIS. The author, Phillip Lohaus, is a research fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a distressingly hawkish organization who often host the worst people in the country to wax about their deadly expertise.
Regardless of the source, Lohaus is correct on at least two points. The most pertinent one is that um, hang on, why aren’t we mentioning that there are already troops on the ground in Iraq and Syria? Thousands of them, in fact? Students of history might know enough to blackly joke about “advisers” being the first step towards a Vietnam-style foreign policy foul-up. But there is more than that on the ground now. We have some six thousand troops and contractors. And this includes combat troops who occasionally engage in combat – including Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler who died last October engaged in what could only be described as an active role in a commando raid on an ISIS prison compound. (Admittedly, dying to free people from ISIS prison is pretty high on the list of noble causes for a US soldier to end his life with, even if he shouldn’t be there in the first place.)
Why all the denial? Why does it not count unless it’s 200,000 troops, as in the 2003 Iraq war? Lohaus seems to be hinting that there is a middle ground between the former and nothing, and he wants a more robust middle. That is a bad idea, as tempting as ISIS’ ancient brutality makes intervention seem on occasion. However, he is right that there are more possibilities than the US seems willing to engage in with their wars.
The reason for this timidity is partly the practicality of caring what the new Iraq government wants and thinks. The right often critiques Obama for “ending” the war in Iraq too early, but that was George W. Bush’s pullout date, and one that the Iraqi government refused to extend.
The funny thing about the US is how much denial goes along with their foreign policy. After all, when America causes hundreds of thousands of deaths as in the Iraq war, it is a slightly embarrassing error at worst. It’s so awkward that former Gov. Jeb Bush can be coaxed into saying he would not have started the war his brother made. But embarrassing is not the same as war crime, or mass slaughter. Unpopular is not the same as learning a lesson, punishing the guilty, or even de-incentivizing them from making the exact same error again.
Our bombs never count the way theirs do. The resulting death is much more well-intentioned. What will happen next – after Saddam falls, or Gaddafi goes, or Bin Laden is found – is never clear. They will welcome us with flowers, and then end credits. Right-wing pundits are outraged that the war in Iraq ended while six thousand troops are there, and US allies fight US-backed rebels. We need more intervention, but nobody will say what number of troops and bombs is the magic one.
Clarity will not solve the mess we’ve been making for the past century. But the first step to stopping a war is admitting that you’re engaged in one, and just how much.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.