09/24/2014 08:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Give War a Chance?


Wars always seem to produce inappropriately cute phrases in American culture. These usually have origins in military shorthand and are then picked up by politicians and pundits and used ad nauseam until everyone just ignores the inherent dehumanization of the language. Examples from the past abound: "domino theory," "Vietnamization," "limited warfare," "surgical bombing," and a more recent example that I always personally objected to (mostly for its "aren't pirates cute" nature) -- "blood and treasure." This time around, of course, the phrase now on everyone's lips is: "boots on the ground."

Boots on the ground -- no matter what ground -- is not actually any sort of problem. If a war could be solved with boots on the ground alone, then the United States would have no problem shipping tens of thousands of boots, combat-ready, to any conflict on the face of the Earth. Cartons of boots could be air-dropped into just about anywhere, and the fighting would then assumably soon be over and the war won by the heroic American footwear.

Of course, I am being facetious. But that's kind of my point -- by using "boots on the ground" as shorthand for "American men and women in combat," the human factor is erased. Boots on their own -- whether combat or high style -- do not fight ground wars. People do. It's the people wearing the boots we're actually talking about, and refusing to use this inside-the-Beltway, "I'm so hip, I got briefed at the Pentagon once" phrasing so popular right now is but one small step towards a proper definition of the concept. I'd suggest "combat troops on the ground" instead, since it is more accurate and less dehumanizing all around.

Semantics aside, though, America is indeed in a new war. Our nightly news will likely be filled with videos fresh from the Pentagon showing pinpoint bombing (truck in the crosshairs... truck in the crosshairs... BOOM!) for some time to come. The American people -- at the present time -- largely support President Obama launching airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. The American people, however, are notably fickle when it comes to supporting long, drawn out conflicts of this nature (without adequately-defined criteria for success), so we'll have to wait and see what the polls say in six months or a year.

The new war is an unusual one in domestic politics, since a Democratic president launched it. The normal hawk/dove divide is turned on its head, in other words. There are few protests in the streets from ardent anti-war types these days, and even fewer Republicans praising Obama for boldly waging war. This is a complete reversal of the days of President Bush, it hardly needs pointing out.

Democrats are (for the most part) timidly supportive of Obama, with a close eye on public opinion. Hillary Clinton proved (in 2008) that blithely voting for war can come back to haunt a Democrat's future political prospects -- a lesson few Democrats have forgotten. Republicans, on the other hand, are in an even worse quandary, since they are (for the most part) gung-ho for warring against the Islamic State, but they also cannot bring themselves to speak a good word about Barack Obama under any circumstance. Mostly, they are left on the sidelines carping about how they'd have a much better plan for waging this war (without ever specifying exactly how that plan would differ from what Obama is doing). They are heavily constrained in this, of course, because few hawkish Republicans are currently advocating any American combat troops on the ground (or their boots, for that matter). So we are left with Democrats attempting to sing a refrain of (with the most sincere apologies to John Lennon): "All we are saying... is give war a chance," while Republicans prepare to do their best Monday-morning quarterbacking, eagerly helpful to point out any mistakes Obama might be making in his war plan.

Last week saw a media frenzy over a fairly innocuous and realistic answer given by a high-ranking military man in front of a congressional committee. When asked specifically if he would ever recommend inserting troops on the ground if the military situation changed, he gave the only possible answer an honest military planner could give: if the situation changes and could be improved by combat ground troops, then of course he would tell the president this -- doing so, after all, is his job and his duty. This was spun into some sort of "Pentagon disagrees with Obama -- boots on the ground will be needed!" rift in the administration's policy. This rift was entirely fictional and manufactured for political reasons, of course. A member of Congress could easily have asked something along the lines of: "When would you recommend nuclear bombs be used?" and any honest military answer given could just have easily have been spun into a "Pentagon wants to nuke ISIS!" headline. So it goes, in Washington.

Military professionals are given a mission, and they are trained to implement that mission as best they know how, using the resources available to them. It is far, far too early to tell what the eventual outcome will be of the mission the military has been given in Iraq and Syria. The mission, like almost all post-World War II missions, is vague and nebulous in part. Such is the nature of modern warfare. No exit scenario currently exists (that I am aware of, at any rate), which is the biggest flaw in our war plans to date. When will we be able to say "we won" and go home? Nobody seems to know.

A military mission can be executed flawlessly, achieve the exact goals set out, and countries can still be "lost" as a result. Libya is the best example of this -- an example which, strangely enough, nobody wants to even bring up in the debate over the Islamic State war. The American military was given a very similar objective in Libya as they are now being given in Iraq and Syria: use overwhelming air power and targeted bombing to degrade the opponent on the battlefield enough so that the "good guys" on the ground can win the fight, take and hold territory, and eventually wipe out the opposition completely. All of this was resoundingly accomplished in Libya, without the loss of a single American pilot's life. No American ground troops were officially used. And yet the conflict can only be seen today as an abject failure (and rightly so).

But the failure was a diplomatic one, not a military one. That's a big distinction, when talking about war and troops on the ground. The military was smashingly successful, and then they left an enormous void which was never filled because part of the diplomatic mission (as opposed to the military one) was "no nation-building -- Americans are tired of nation-building." Benghazi, and the chaos which reigns today in Libya were both direct results of this strategy -- although, to be fair, nobody can accurately say whether a nation-building strategy would have worked out any better.

This is an instructive example for many reasons, which is why it is odd that nobody seems to want to bring it up now. Attacking the Islamic State fighters from the air while urging on the "good guys" we have designated on the ground could indeed work. It won't work overnight, it'll take some very long months (possibly years) before anyone will be able to call it a success. But it is not -- as many are now rushing to proclaim -- guaranteed to fail. It could achieve the military mission set out, and erase the Islamic State from the maps of both countries.

The real question is what comes afterwards. The answer to that is obviously easier to contemplate in Iraq than in Syria. President Obama is not being given enough credit for refusing to act in Iraq until they formed a new government and got rid of Prime Minister Maliki. This may not be enough to reconcile Sunnis to the Iraqi government, but at least there is a chance of doing so now, instead of the zero chance which existed under Maliki's rule. The rosiest exit scenario now possible in Iraq is that America relentlessly bombs the Islamic State fighters, the Iraqi army finds its backbone and retakes cities and territory, and after all the dust settles Sunnis are treated as equals by the new government without discrimination. Call it Sunni Awakening II, perhaps. In this perfect outcome, Iran gracefully withdraws its militias (whom we are now supporting with airstrikes, it bears mentioning), and stops trying to meddle in Iraqi affairs quite so blatantly. The Kurds gain more autonomy, Sunnis are given top military and governmental positions and real political power, and the United States Air Force flies triumphantly off into the sunset. What the chances of this happening are, nobody accurately knows. The chance that at least some of this rosy scenario plays out, though, is at least a solid possibility. Things could generally work out for the better in Iraq, but that's really a pretty low bar to clear when "better" just means "not having murderous psychopathic thugs in charge of our town."

Whatever the chances are of an acceptable outcome in Iraq, however, an acceptable outcome in Syria is almost impossible to even describe, at this point. Part of the problem is the American public simply is not being told of the complexity of the situation. We like our wars to be two-sided, after all, with clear distinctions between the white hats and the black hats. This is not possible in Syria. It is a civil war with multiple sides, shifting alliances, and so many armed groups you'd need a very long scorecard to even accurately keep count. Even the "good guys" we have designated don't actually exist as a singular unit -- the "Free Syrian Army" is nothing more than a loose coalition of armed groups whom the United States has agreed to back because they are "moderates." In our definition, "moderate" merely means "wants to depose Assad, fight the Islamic State, and doesn't want to attack America" -- which stretches the dictionary definition of "moderate" almost beyond recognition. The "bad guys," however, seem to endlessly multiply -- we just sent cruise missiles to bomb a group which hadn't even been previously mentioned in the public debate about the war. That is a stunning thought, because it immediately leads one to wonder: "How many other groups are we going to have to bomb in Syria that we've never even previously heard of?" So far, this is an unanswered question, which shows the futility of even attempting to predict any sort of acceptable outcome (for America) in this war. Even if the Islamic State can be rolled back successfully in Iraq within six months or a year, pushing them back into the seething cauldron of Syria is still going to leave an awfully complicated situation.

In Iraq, we are essentially now fighting on the side of Iran, while in Syria we are essentially now fighting on the side of the Assad government. Strange bedfellows indeed, no matter how many times the "enemy of my enemy" concept is cited. Such "allies" make predicting the future outcome a fool's game, at this point.

While American politicians snipe at each other to try to find partisan advantages to use in the upcoming midterm elections, the hard questions are going unasked. Republicans would truly like to see a victory in what they still call the "Global War On Terrorism," but they do not want to begrudge any political credit to this president for leading the effort. Democrats, on the other hand, are reduced to meekly suggesting we "give war a chance," and not to joggle Obama's elbow while he's leading an air war. Neither side, for differing reasons, wants to even talk about how this thing ends. Neither side is even willing to try to define what the contours of "victory" would look like, in fact. They posture about "boots on the ground" in insincere ways, preferring to talk military tactics and strategies rather than to adequately lay out what the mission's success can even be defined as. That is a problem with semantics that is a lot more serious than my objections to a single phrase, I have to say.


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