Jeb Bush certainly had a bad week last week, as he struggled to come up with a clear answer to a question he really should have been expecting in the first place. Other Republicans also struggled to admit that the Iraq War was indeed a mistake (which is somewhat understandable, because by doing so they are criticizing a former Republican president). But while the spectacle of Republicans having to admit a big Republican mistake certainly is amusing, there's an even bigger question which so far has remained unasked: "Knowing all the things we've learned in the past decade and a half, what would it take for you to send American troops to fight an overseas war?" This is the real question the voters deserve an answer to. To put it more bluntly: "How many more wars can we expect if you are elected?"
The present situation should be taken as a starting point for this conversation. Already, some Republican candidates have openly called for more American ground troops to be sent back into Iraq to fight the Islamic State. It remains to be seen whether the other candidates will jump aboard this train of thought, in a frenzy of one-upmanship and chest-beating. But all those who criticize President Obama's handling of foreign policy -- which includes the entire Republican presidential field, it almost goes without saying -- should really have to detail precisely what they'd do differently. The voters really do deserve an answer to this question, since these people are running to take Obama's place in the White House.
What should we do differently about fighting the Islamic State in Iraq? Should we fight alongside Iranian militias, or give them air cover? If American ground troops are the answer, then how many of them do you think should be sent, and how close to the front lines should they be? How many American troops will it take to push the Islamic State out of Iraq and stabilize the country? How long are they going to have to stay?
The next questions are obvious: What about Syria? Should we be bombing Syria? On whom, exactly, should we drop these bombs? The government's forces? The Islamic State? Should American ground troops be sent in to Syria to pacify the situation? Who would they be fighting alongside? Who would they be fighting against? Would overthrowing Assad be part of their mission, or not?
Marco Rubio recently introduced what might be called the "Liam Neeson Doctrine," stating that Islamic terrorists should just be hunted down and killed, like in a Hollywood movie. He didn't qualify the sentiment at all. What he (and other Republican candidates) are really talking about is reviving the Bush/Cheney concept of the "Global War On Terrorism" (often shortened to "GWOT"). We'll fight terrorists anywhere on Earth, to avoid having to fight them here at home (that's the theory, at any rate).
So beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria, where else should we be taking this fight? How about Yemen? Should we throw our lot in with any of the three groups fighting for power there? How, exactly? Bombing runs? Boots on the ground?
Or how about the failed state of Libya? The Islamic State has become active in Libya, so should we be fighting them there, too? We tried an air war with no ground troops before, and it did succeed in its main objective of overthrowing Qaddafi, but we sure didn't follow through with any nation-building afterwards. So, to really solve Libya, we'd have to not only defeat all the various Islamist militias, but also occupy and pacify the country -- a project which could take years. How many American troops should be committed to such a mission?
There's a lot of Islamic terrorism happening in sub-Saharan Africa as well. Should America declare war on groups like Boko Haram? They're Islamic terrorists too, so wouldn't they be included in the whole GWOT grand plan? How many countries should American troops invade, realistically?
Then there's an even bigger problem to contemplate. All the Republican candidates seem to disagree with President Obama's attempt at diplomacy with Iran, some stating they'd unilaterally pull out of any Obama-negotiated Iranian deal "on Day One." Each of these candidates should be asked to explain, in detail, exactly what it would take for them to go to war with Iran. "War," in this case, includes "bombing their nuclear facilities," which many Republicans seem to have an interest in doing. So, they should be asked: How do you think Iran will respond to such an act of war (hint: The answer is not "They would not retaliate at all")? If Iran tries to close the Strait of Hormuz, would we then launch a naval or ground war against them? How many American troops is that going to take?
When you add all these up, it's clear that Republicans making good on bellicose campaign promises would be a costly thing for America. We're going to need a whole bunch of Liam Neesons, to put it another way.
But, I really shouldn't be making snide jokes. Going to war is a serious thing. Sending in American pilots or ground troops is part of the job of being president -- the most serious part, in fact. All those currently running for this job should be asked what their criteria would be for committing American lives to a fight. Instead of "gotcha" questions over the Iraq War, these are the questions I'd really like answered.
What would it take for any future president to conduct drone warfare? On which countries should we be dropping bombs from unmanned aircraft? Which countries should American pilots be flying bombing missions over? Into which countries should American ground troops be sent? These are all valid questions to ask about the situation as it stands right now, not as it stood back in 2003.
There are no easy answers to these questions. There is great risk in almost all of these options. On a scale of U.S. involvement, every choice carries future problems. Arming a group of foreign fighters can backfire, as it did with the Taliban. Bombing from drones can actually create more jihadi fighters than it kills, as has happened in Pakistan. Using American air power without ground troops can succeed militarily but fail badly afterwards, as happened in Libya. Ground wars can be won by American troops, but also lead to failure in the aftermath, as happened in the first few years of the Iraq War. Occupying a country can be a long hard slog with no good outcome ever achieved, again as shown in Iraq.
I'm not saying I have answers to any of the questions I've posed here. They're tough questions, I admit. But then, I'm not running for president. I'm not auditioning for the job of deciding what the answers to all these questions will be, if I'm elected.
Republicans have pushed back on the, "Knowing what we know now, would you have sent troops into Iraq back then?" question, since it is not only hypothetical, it is actually an impossibility (absent a working time machine). Nobody making any decision can have knowledge of the future while making it. But there are plenty of other hypothetical questions that are entirely valid -- questions about what America should do now, or in the near future. None of these questions involves time travel. "What would you do now?" or "What would you do if you became president?" are both completely reasonable lines of questioning for any presidential candidate.
America deserves to know, from each and every candidate (in both parties), what it would take for them to enter our country into a war -- either a war that is currently ongoing, or a future war with a new adversary. I'm waiting for the media to wake up and realize this, now that they've had their fun with Bush and his floundering answer on Iraq. More important than, "Which past wars would you have started?" is a much more critical question for our country's immediate future: "How many more wars will America enter if you become president?"
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