Any of us old enough to remember the steady mission creep that characterized the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War can’t help but cringe as we watch the President speak about our limited and almost antiseptic strategy to eliminate the threat posed by ISIL. It seems that his plan is predicated on a strong commitment and success of others, yet to be named. To his credit he didn’t make ISIL out to be the most threatening scourge the world has ever seen. He did, however, attempt to place them within the context of the war on terrorism. I applaud him in his effort to diminish the hysteria that has been ramped up over the past couple of weeks by both politicos and press. At the same time, he did call ISIL what it is. They are a threat to the Muslim, Christian and minority religious populations in Iraq and other middle eastern countries. They are brutal, genocidal and amoral. Their goal is to terrify and control populations and to expand their sphere of influence. While they do not pose an imminent threat to our nation at home, they do pose a threat to American interests abroad. This is a valid rationale for implementing a strategy to degrade and defeat them. But Mr. President, if your stated strategy doesn’t work, then what?
To say that the middle east is incredibly complex and defies rational thought is an understatement. Imagine that what the President is attempting to do is thread a needle twice using the same needle. He is trying to get Sunni Arab nations to commit to supporting and participating in a ground war against ISIL, a Sunni Muslim group. He is further trying to get the Free Syrian Army to fight against ISIL, an anti Assad group, while also fighting against Assad. To make things a little more interesting, he is trying to get the newly constituted Iraqi Army, under Shia control, to go after ISIL in Sunni controlled areas of Iraq, while the Sunni populations of those areas have, based on recent history, little confidence in the Iraqi Army. If this all sounds counterintuitive and confusing, it should. To further complicate the situation, you can’t discuss the middle east without the overlay of the 1300 year war between the Sunnis and Shias or the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. Finally, I know through my own personal experience that I won’t expand upon here, that the middle eastern mindset regarding negotiation and agreement is sort of “now you see it, now you don’t”. What was agreed to yesterday is forgotten today. Based on all of the above I think it is valid to ask, “Mr. President, if your strategy doesn’t work, then what?”
It has been interesting to note that the polls over the past couple of weeks have increasingly supported military action by the United States to destroy ISIL. It is true the action being discussed has been limited to expanding American bombing into Syria, but the numbers seem to indicate a greater acceptance by Americans to engage in this battle. While there is still an overwhelming objection to “boots on the ground”, do you really think it would be difficult to move public opinion in that direction? If the President made the case that ISIL is at our very doorstep and could strike America at any moment if not stopped, do you think it would take much to push Americans over the edge in that poll? We are at the nexus of “911 syndrome” v. “Vietnam syndrome”. It consists of our great fear of being attacked at home again verses a fear of a multi-year entanglement fruitlessly costing America and Americans dearly.
I find our current dilemma unsettling. I am not accusing the President or his administration of not being honest with us. I believe that he sincerely trusts that his strategy will work and wants to avoid placing Americans in harm’s way on foreign soil once again. But still I must ask, “Mr. President, if your strategy doesn’t work what then?”