Last week news outlets reported that the Pentagon had requested another 500 boots on the ground in the fight in Iraq against the Islamic State:
The new deployment, if approved by the White House, would assist Iraqi and coalition forces in preparing for the battle to capture the northern city, the extremist group’s last major stronghold in Iraq. . . .
The new U.S. forces would increase the number of American personnel officially deployed to Iraq from 4,400 to about 4,900. The Pentagon also maintains up to 1,500 additional U.S. forces that it doesn’t acknowledge as part of its Iraq force, most at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or on temporary assignments. The new deployment would bring the overall U.S. presence to as high as 6,400.
Recall that after President Obama took office the Pentagon requested a significant stay-behind force (24,000), which Obama cut again and again down to a paltry 5,000. He did not push for a deal with the Iraqi prime minister to keep even that number in Iraq. As predicted, Iraq soon devolved into disarray and the Islamic State found a stronghold.
“Obama was elected, in part, due to his strong opposition to the Iraq War. He entered office determined to walk away from the war, which he viewed as optional,” explains Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “He reduced the U.S. military presence in the country without a plan for stabilizing it. This, of course, produced greater instability. The country has become increasingly fractured. Iranian militias are now growing there in strength and number. And while that may not bother Obama too much, ISIS conquests have.” Now he has to recognize we really do need troops. “This explains the drip-drip news of more American servicemen being deployed there,” says Schanzer.
President Obama, who bragged about “ending” the Iraq war, since coming into office has been using his favorite straw man choice between no “boots on the ground” or hundreds of thousands. In fact we’ve had and now are adding to the boots on the ground, and no one was recommending hundreds of thousands of troops.
Is this a case of better late than never? “I won’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” says John Noonan, former adviser to the House Armed Services Committee and to Jeb Bush during his presidential campaign. “The Administration is taking this fight more seriously and that’s commendable.” He cautions however that “military leadership has been more or less consistent. We’re lowballing what’s necessary to get the job done right. I’m not sure how many attacks in places like Orlando and New York it will take to get the point across.” He urges, “Better to strangle ISIS in its cradle than nurse its unacted desires.”
The next president is going to inherit an unstable, violent and war-torn Middle East, much more chaotic than the one President Obama saw coming into office. The next president should consider carefully the Obama example. As former ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman observes, “This kind of incrementalism recalls the worst days of Vietnam.” So-called “mission creep” in Iraq satisfies neither proponents of robust action nor opponents of any action.
It does, however, ensure a long slog during which the Islamic State can continue to terrorize the population and serve as direct or indirect inspiration for attacks on the West. The cost of Obama’s phony “end the war” gambit has been steep. The Islamic State and its reign of terror are ensconced in Iraq. Iranian influence in Iraq has grown. The Islamic State helped (via training) or inspired a slew of deadly attacks in the West (Orlando, Paris, San Bernardino, Turkey).
The next president should ask for a frank assessment of military needs for the quickest possible victory. That requires a president willing to listen to and who respects the military — and one who is willing to take political push-back. The upside of significant U.S. action there and a willingness to deploy air power in Syria would certainly signal to foes (including Iran) and friends that the Obama years are behind us and America is ready to lead from the front.