A problem with “boots on the ground”

It seems likely that air strikes alone aren’t going to accomplish President Obama’s alleged goal of degrading and destroying ISIS, and almost certain that an air campaign of the low intensity we’ve witnessed so far is inadequate. It also appears that the Iraqi Army and the rebels we support in Syria are not up to the task.

Accordingly, if we truly want to degrade/destroy ISIS, or even set it back significantly, U.S. ground troops will be required.

But Michael Rubin voices a serious reservation:

[E]ven if boots on the ground are necessary with an augmented air campaign, there is one problem that is unsolvable, and that is the personality and lack of commitment of the commander-in-chief. President Obama has the strategic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Despite his September 10 speech, it’s unclear whether he is truly committed to destroying ISIS or was simply reacting to the spike in public outrage following the murder of James Foley….

[T]here is nothing more dangerous to any potential ground troops than to be inserted into a warzone without broad public consensus about their mission and to have a commander-in-chief who has consistently met the requests of forces in the field with indecision and a failure to deliver what ground commanders consider their minimum basic needs.

Rubin’s point resembles an argument many conservatives (including some at Power Line) made in opposing air strikes against Assad in response to his use chemical weapons. Air strikes might be appropriate in theory, the argument went, but Obama cannot be trusted to carry them out.

Applied to air strikes against Assad, I found the argument unpersuasive. But the insertion of U.S. ground troops into Iraq and/or Syria is another matter. If this is botched, the consequences could be disastrous.

The calculus may depend in part on what the U.S. troops would be doing. If they are there in small numbers in a support role and to help figure out where air power is best deployed, the risk of disaster is probably small. But then, so might the reward be.

Obama oversaw the insertion of large numbers of troops into Afghanistan. The campaign wasn’t a disaster per se, but Obama did fail to provide the troop levels requested by his generals and, more importantly, undermined the campaign from the start by telling the enemy that we weren’t committed for the long term.

With Obama’s presidency winding down, I would settle for waging against ISIS the rough equivalent of the war Obama waged in Afghanistan. This would leave the next president in a better position than Obama’s current policy likely will.

But given his aversion to involvement in Iraq and the fact that he doesn’t have to run for president again, would Obama match even the semi-seriousness he was able to muster for Afghanistan? It is, as Rubin says, “an unresolved problem.”

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