06/25/2015 11:41 am ET Updated Jun 25, 2016

Why Is Up the Only Direction on the Ladder of Escalation?

On June 13th, Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan of the Washington Post reported what should have been big news (though it was hardly noted). In recent White House "debates" over a disastrously deteriorating situation in Iraq, President Obama's top military officials were dragging their feet on the question of what more the U.S. should do. No, they didn't want to put American boots on the ground inside Iraqi army units as spotters for U.S. air power or bring in the Apache attack helicopters, which are "lethal in urban combat but vulnerable to enemy ground fire." Clearly, they weren't ready to swallow the idea of more U.S. casualties in a spreading conflict leading nowhere fast. As one unnamed senior Pentagon official put it, "We have become very sensitized to the idea that we don't want to risk lives and limbs if there isn't a high probability of a payoff." According to Jaffe and Ryan, State Department representatives, in private, proved more eager than Pentagon officials to up the military ante in Iraq -- and that's not been everyday fare in Washington.

At a moment when the capital is full of calls for strengthening U.S. forces in that country and many Republican presidential candidates -- figures who are ready to back the military until death do us part -- are criticizing the Obama administration for not doing enough against the Islamic State, consider this news about a significant change in the mindset of the high command. You could perhaps claim that, in a crucial part of Washington, reality was finally setting in. If so, however, you would have to add a caveat: after all, the recent behind-the-scenes deliberations didn't end up producing a cutback in U.S. support for the Iraqis, but a further escalation of it. The president agreed to send 450 more U.S. personnel to a new base in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province on a training mission and left open the possibility of more. Meanwhile, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, began to talk up the idea of building new training bases closer to the action in Iraq (which would mean hundreds or even thousands of additional U.S. personnel heading in-country).

In other words, even when reality takes hold, the drip, drip, drip of creeping escalation doesn't end. For those old enough to remember Vietnam, this is familiar stuff. Once you're on the first rungs of this escalatory ladder, there never seems to be any direction to go but up. Someday, historians will undoubtedly offer explanations for the combination of forces -- political and military, domestic and foreign -- that make the impulse to keep climbing so much more powerful than the impulse to descend, no matter what messages reality might be sending Washington's way. Read State Department whistleblower Peter Van Buren's latest analysis of our third war from hell in the same country, "Five Things That Won't Work in Iraq," and you can hardly doubt what direction on that ladder our leaders should be heading.