If you stare at the Islamic State areas of Iraq and Syria long enough — a bit like Nietzsche’s staring into the abyss — it will not exactly stare back at you, but it will start to look a lot like Vietnam. The United States can either learn from that experience or get out now. President Obama, as is his custom, looks like he wants to do both.
The reference to Vietnam keeps coming up. Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former commander of the U.S. central command, mentioned it the other day on the PBS “NewsHour” in discussing what to do about the Islamic State. “So I think this is almost deja vu to Vietnam before we committed the ground forces,” he said. “We dribble in more and more advisers and support.” The operative word is “dribble.” It has become U.S. doctrine.
The White House will now dribble an additional 450 military advisers into Iraq. What that will accomplish is a mystery. They are too few to instill in the Iraqi army the necessary desire to keep their uniforms on and not flee in the face of the enemy. They are also too few to convince the Iraqis that they are in a national army, and not representing a religious sect or tribe.
As it stands now, here’s what the Americans will not do. They will not go into battle with the Iraqis, instructing them on how these things are done. Nor will they be on the spot to call in airstrikes that so far are more misses than hits, in the assessment of many. It’s not that these strikes aren’t doing some damage; it’s rather that they aren’t doing enough damage. Since the airstrikes started, the Islamic State has expanded the area under its control and taken Ramadi. Things are going the wrong way.
It seems inevitable that the current plan will eventually have to be followed by Americans going into battle along with Iraqis and calling in precision airstrikes. That ought to make a difference.
The Vietnam analogy is worth worrying about. There, too, small steps led to bigger ones and, in seemingly no time, a protracted land war that the United States lost. There, too, we took the side of a corrupt regime that squandered the loyalty of its people.
But there are differences, too. The South Vietnamese communists, the Viet Cong, were supported by North Vietnam, which supplied men and material. The Islamic State has no such ally and its replacements have to come from a distance, and are not shielded by a jungle canopy. Battalions of men cannot pour across the border.
The looming question remains — as it did in Vietnam — whether this fight is worth American lives. The answer in Vietnam was no. That was essentially a civil war that was misread as the first domino that, if left to fall, would topple other countries all the way to San Francisco. Ho Chi Minh had no such designs.
The war against the Islamic State is also a civil war — or, if not exactly that, an internal Islamic one. But if the Islamic State survives, the entity that would emerge would more than likely bring the war home to the United States and other Western countries. The beheaders of the innocent and the enslavers of women are not going to reach a detente with the West. The group will import, train and then export terrorists. It is a collection of religious zealots whose purity of barbarism is the chief lure to anyone seeking purpose to a purposeless life. The question is not whether this is a fight worth having. The question is whether it can possibly be avoided.
The inescapable conclusion, however, is that Obama has once again reached for a political solution to a military problem. As he did with the so-called Afghanistan surge where he split the difference in the troop buildup and imposed an exit date, he’s now doing something similar. His stated goal is to degrade and destroy the Islamic State, but that’s just rhetoric — like his red line bluff in Syria. What he really wants is to vindicate his pledge to end the war in Iraq. He has his eye on his legacy.
Yes, it is imperative to proceed with caution. If Vietnam does not teach the folly of getting into a land war with a zealous enemy, then the bloodletting of Iraq surely does. But the Islamic State can be weakened from the air and fought on the ground by Iraqi troops assisted by Americans. That will all happen sooner or later. Why not now?
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