Risks of war [Editorial]

Our view: Congress and the president must not let politics dictate our strategy for combating ISIS — and they must make sure the public understands what's at stake

September 18, 2014

Members of both parties in the House of Representatives held their noses this week to pass legislation authorizing the president to train foreign forces to confront the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the Senate is due to vote on the same measure today. Many Republicans have reluctantly supported the measure even though many think it doesn't go far enough, while many Democrats back it in a show of solidarity with their party's president despite serious misgivings about where a war vote could ultimately lead.

Congress' ambivalence reflects a deep uncertainty surrounding whether the Obama administration's strategy for degrading and defeating ISIS, the terrorist organization that now controls large swaths of Iraq and Syria, is aligned with the military and diplomatic resources available to accomplish that mission. Mr. Obama insists that no U.S. ground troops will participate in the fighting and that America's role in the conflict will be limited to providing air support the Iraqi Army, Kurdish pesh merga militias and moderate Syrian opposition forces. But critics say the authorization puts the country on a slippery slope to deeper involvement.

Those concerns were underscored this week by the apparently conflicting statements of the president and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General Dempsey suggested that if Mr. Obama's current plan to assemble an international coalition to fight ISIS didn't work he would go back to the president and make additional recommendations that might include the limited use of American ground forces in the region. He cited the recapture of the city of Mosul and securing strategic dams in Iraq as examples of such a mission.

The next day the White House forcefully reiterated the president's earlier statement that there were no plans to put American boots on the ground and that the administration did not intend to involve the country in another open-ended Mideast conflict. Still, skeptics quickly seized on what they viewed as the administration's ambivalent attitude toward U.S. military policy in the region.

The president's apparently on again, off again war plan regarding American ground forces in Iraq raised legitimate questions in Congress as to whether Mr. Obama's strategy is actually being driven more by domestic politics than by the military situation in Iraq. While polls show a majority of Americans see ISIS as a threat and support U.S. airstrikes to halt its spread, voters remain far less sanguine about sending U.S. ground troops back into a situation they only managed to extricate themselves from in 2013 after 10 years of war. With midterm elections just around the corner, it's no wonder neither Democrats nor Republicans are comfortable giving the president a blank check to expand the U.S. military presence in the region.

That's understandable, but it's also brought out a lot of foolishness in the debate over the president's war policy. Among Republicans, for example, some lawmakers have complained that they're not convinced any of the military operations the president has proposed will work. They seem to have completely forgotten that war is unpredictable and that there are no guarantees any strategy will be successful.

Another frequently heard complaint, again mostly from Republicans, is that the president is wrong to rule out the use of U.S. ground forces because it's never smart to tell the enemy what you won't do. True, but then again it's not smart to tell the enemy what you will do, either. In wartime, as Winston Churchill famously said, truth is so precious that "she must always be accompanied by a bodyguard of lies." Whatever the president is telling Congress, you can be sure it is nothing that will help ISIS defeat the U.S.

We argued against invading Iraq in the first place, and we are as reluctant as anyone to see American troops pulled back there. But like General Dempsey, we believe our strategy must be dictated by the reality on the ground. We have seen evidence in recent weeks that air strikes conducted in concert with local forces can be effective in pushing ISIS back, but as General Dempsey suggested, if those circumstances change, we must be willing to at least consider adjusting our strategy. The president is doing the American public no favors by insisting otherwise. We need to understand what's at stake. The Bush administration made the mistake of believing it could invent its own reality in Iraq; Congress and the Obama administration cannot fall into the same trap now.


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