As I’ve listened to President Barack Obama speak about the war against Islamic State (IS) in Syria and pledge not to “commit US troops to another ground war in Iraq” I had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. Maybe it is my age and generation, but I kept hearing another president.
Fifty years ago this week, on September 25, 1964, Lyndon Johnson told the nation, “We don’t want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys. We don’t want to... get tied down in a land war in Asia.” That was Vietnam. Iraq and Syria, like Israel, are also in Asia.
On that day I was a PhD student at the Ohio State University; six weeks later I was a PFC in the US Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
It was eerily familiar when President Obama said “we cannot do it for them”; we will train, equip, assist and advise them, but they will have to do the fighting themselves. We started out in Vietnam with advisors, equipment and assistance and wound up with more than 55,000 dead Americans, many times that number maimed and wounded. More recently the Bush-Cheney administration launched an unnecessary war based on lies to settle an old score with Saddam Hussein, and by their ineptitude wound up creating a pro-Iranian Shi’ite government that was closer to Teheran than Washington despite the fact that we put it in power and paid it.
Actually, the potential for miscalculation and disaster are even greater in this war against IS than in the Vietnamese conflict. Back then, we were facing a typical communist insurgency; while we grossly underestimated both the military strength of our adversaries and their popular support, we knew the enemy. IS is a far more amorphous enemy, a surging, ever-changing movement tied to ancient religious and tribal grievances. Going to war against an enemy we don’t understand vastly multiplies the risks of national catastrophe.
As we bombed Vietnamese villages to “save” them from the communists, we only increased support for Hanoi. What reason do we have for believing things will be different in the Middle East, where America is already viewed as a mortal enemy?
What will happen when – as it inevitably will – some of those precursor US forces are killed or kidnapped? Won’t the pressure be almost irresistible to invest even more heavily in an unwinnable conflict? President Obama may indeed oppose the insertion of American troops into the conflict, but history suggests such intentions are quickly abandoned.
One rationale for this new war also has a familiar ring: the old domino theory. Remember when we were told if South Vietnam fell to the hands of the communists the rest of Southeast Asia would be sure to follow? Now it’s Syria, followed by Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and the rest of Southwest Asia.
The Shi’ite-dominated government of Iraq, despite owing its existence to the United States, refused to let us keep forces in Iraq because Prime Minister Nouri Maliki wanted to use his country’s security forces to seek vengeance on the country’s Sunnis, former US defense secretary Leon Panetta told 60 Minutes on Sunday. Had we been able to leave several thousand soldiers behind we might have been able to sure the Iraqi army could prevent or at least defeat IS.
Instead, the Iraqi army that we had trained and equipped shed its uniforms and ran at the first sign of danger. What makes anyone think it will be different this time?
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, drew another Vietnam analogy in an interview with David Ignatius of The Washington Post. He said we made the same mistake in evaluating IS fighters that we did with the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese – underestimating their will to fight and overestimating the will of our South Vietnamese allies. The collapse of the Iraqi security forces was a complete surprise, he admitted.
Many of those who backed Bush and Cheney’s war are anxious to go back, while Democrats, smarting from being pushed into that war, are more reluctant. Republicans have accused Obama of not doing enough to combat IS and Democrats fear he is doing too much.
The president promised no American boots on the ground, but last Tuesday his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff opened that door a crack. And if you’ll indulge my metaphors, on the other side of that door is a very slippery and dangerous slope.
If there are to be American boots on the ground, I’d insist the ones wearing them be war hawks named John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Dick Cheney, Sarah Palin, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Dan Quayle, Rush Limbaugh, and the talking heads at Fox News.
Actually there already are American boots on the ground, about 1,700 advisors, but no combat troops. Yet.
Seriously, if there are to be combat boots on the ground – and that will be necessary if IS is to be defeated – they must be Muslim soldiers. If for no other reason than preventing this conflict from being perceived as an American war on Islam. And if those most threatened – Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, the Gulf sheiks, Egypt – cannot or will not defend themselves, how can we be expected to do the job?
The Congress quickly approved – and the president signed – spending $500 million to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces – as soon as some moderates can be found. This is something the Saudis and their oil-rich neighbors should be paying for since they’re the primary beneficiaries of halting IS. American taxpayers already plunked down over a trillion (yes, trillion with a “T”) dollars to “liberate” Iraq and defend the Gulf and sacrificed nearly 5,000 American lives, with many thousands more wounded.
The president will be at the United Nations this week recruiting world leaders to join his “coalition of the willing,” but few are terribly willing. The White House says it already has many successful partners but isn’t naming them or the role they’ll be playing.
Most disturbing, our NATO ally, Turkey, which has a border with Iraq and Syria and may face a serious threat from IS, refuses to help. Turkey’s Islamist government, as in the 2003 Gulf war, won’t allow our planes to use NATO bases or its territory or air space. This is all the more egregious because Turkey is a major source of recruits and funds for IS; it’s unclear what, if anything, the Erdogan government is doing to stop that.
Maybe, as Panetta has said, Obama should have taken the threat or IS and the Islamic extremists in Syria more seriously two years ago when his national security team was pushing him to give more support to the Syrian opposition. The president conceded in a clumsy moment of honesty that he had no strategy. After all of his speeches and the clarifications and contradictions of his top advisors, I still don’t see one.