Last Monday, just three days after the deadly attacks in Paris, President Obama defended his strategy on fighting the Islamic State, saying the established bombing runs and containment tactics were working. Specifically, Obama said he would not intensify U.S. military involvement in Syria and Iraq through the use of ground forces. “We have the right strategy,“ he declared, “and we’re going to see it through.”
Obama continued: “What I do not do is take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.”
The President is wrong to dismiss the use of ground troops, and it has the potential to become the worst mistake of his presidency. In dismissing calls for boots on the ground as grandstanding machismo, Obama – along with far too many of my fellow liberals – is missing a crucial point:
This isn’t about being tough. It’s about enough being enough.
On Saturday, The New York Times’ Roger Cohen – not exactly part of the vast right-wing conspiracy – made this point with blunt eloquence:
It was wrong to dismiss ISIS as a regional threat… A certain quality of evil cannot be allowed physical terrain on which to breed… History teaches that human beings are capable of fathomless evil. Unmet, it grows.
His verdict: “To defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq will require NATO forces on the ground.”
The arguments against putting boots on the ground to overrun ISIS are, though certainly understandable, full of holes. For starters, this is Iraq in 2015, not Iraq in 2003. We aren’t deposing a dictator whose power, though ruthless, kept the region relatively stable. Unlike Baghdad, it would be literally impossible to leave ISIS strongholds like Raqqa in worse shape than we found them. There’s nowhere to go but up for those under ISIS rule.
We bought Iraq in 2003 because we broke it – and did so unprovoked at that; we made a bad place far worse for no credible reason. But this is an entirely different scenario, one in which a search-and-destroy ground war need not be followed by decades of nation-building. We’re not fixing a society, we’re eliminating a grievous threat – which, quite frankly, is what our military is designed to do anyway. The Marine Corps is not the Peace Corps.
Furthermore, it is becoming obvious that an end – or even a cease-fire – to Syria’s four-year civil war cannot take root until ISIS is first unrooted. There’s no guarantee that removing ISIS would help bring about peace, but it would certainly be a step in that direction.
But the biggest reason for sending ground troops to battle ISIS is the level of damage the self-proclaimed caliphate has, can and will almost certainly continue to cause should they not be overwhelmingly defeated.
In the last few weeks alone, ISIS has been responsible for three separate terrorist attacks that have killed more than 350 people and wounded over 650. This includes the bombing of a Russian airliner above Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula on October 31, killing all 224 on board; dual suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon on November 12, killing 43 and wounding nearly 500; and of course, the tightly synchronized attack in Paris on November 13 combining bombs, grenades and high-powered assault rifles.
Compared to previous ISIS attacks, these latest acts of terrorism are both more deadly and, perhaps even more worrisome, more sophisticated. The Paris attack in particular involved both timely execution and, in the days and weeks leading up to the incident, a highly coordinated conspiracy capable of eluding France’s well-regarded counterterrorism authorities.
It’s all too feasible that London, Berlin or, as ISIS itself has threatened, New York or Washington, D.C. could be next. By no means do I feel like I’m abandoning my liberal, diplomacy-first tenets in arguing that ISIS has plausibly passed the “is it worth it?” ground troops litmus test.
It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be perfect. But, as Cohen wrote later in his Times piece, though “crushing ISIS in Syria and Iraq will not eliminate the jihadi terrorist threat… the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.”
After the shameful immorality of George W. Bush’s unlawful, insufficiently planned invasion of Iraq in 2003, we seem to have lost all faith in our military’s ability to accomplish a mission that is both justifiable and imminently accomplishable. It’s understandable – in fact, it’s healthy – that America has a collective post-Bush stress disorder, but that doesn’t excuse us from taking the next right action in the here and now.
That next right action is a coalition of Western NATO allies – a true coalition including the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, and Canada – dislodging ISIS from all territory it illegally holds in Iraq and Syria. If done correctly, with overwhelming numbers and utilizing our far superior technology, that mission would unfold far more like Operation Desert Storm in 1991 than Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
ISIS is a cancer, one that, up to now, we’ve been containing with the relatively indiscriminate chemotherapy administered by fighter jets and drones. As the past few weeks have shown, that treatment has been insufficient. It’s time to cut the cancer out with a surgical strike, despite the consequences of bloodying our hands in the process.
The result won’t be perfect, but it will certainly be progress.