The Fallacy of a Military Solution in Syria

by Jim Lobe

In case you haven’t noticed, neocons are once again leading the charge to send in more U.S. ground forces to achieve a military solution to the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in both Syria and Iraq.

That great military thinker, Bill Kristol, has suggested that we send in 50,000 U.S. troops, if that’s what it takes. Kristol’s historic (and generally more sophisticated) partner-in-crime, Bob Kagan, threw out the same number in a surprisingly silly essay (“The Crisis of World Order”) published in last Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. Kagan argued that the Iraq invasion (for which both of them bear substantial intellectual responsibility) and the Libya intervention have made the United States far too risk-averse. Here’s his recipe:

The only alternative is to address the crisis in Syria and Iraq, and with it the terrorist threat posed by Islamic State. But just as in the 1990s, when Europeans could address the crisis in the Balkans only with the U.S. playing the dominant military role, so again America will have to take the lead, provide the troops, supply the bulk of the air power and pull together those willing and able to join the effort.

What would such an effort look like? First, it would require establishing a safe zone in Syria, providing the millions of would-be refugees still in the country a place to stay and the hundreds of thousands who have fled to Europe a place to which to return. To establish such a zone, American military officials estimate, would require not only U.S. air power but ground forces numbering up to 30,000. Once the safe zone was established, many of those troops could be replaced by forces from Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, but the initial force would have to be largely American.

In addition, a further 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops would be required to uproot IS from the haven it has created in Syria and to help local forces uproot it in Iraq. Many of those troops could then be replaced by NATO and other international forces to hold the territory and provide a safe zone for rebuilding the areas shattered by Islamic State rule.

…At practically any other time in the last 70 years, the idea of dispatching even 50,000 troops to fight an organization of Islamic State’s description would not have seemed too risky or too costly to most Americans. In 1990-91, President George H.W. Bush, now revered as a judicious and prudent leader, sent half a million troops across the globe to drive Iraq out of Kuwait, a country that not one American in a million could find on a map and which the U.S. had no obligation to defend. In 1989, he sent 30,000 troops to invade Panama to topple an illegitimate, drug-peddling dictator. During the Cold War, when presidents sent more than 300,000 troops to Korea and more than 500,000 troops to Vietnam, the idea of sending 50,000 troops to fight a large and virulently anti-American terrorist organization that had seized territory in the Middle East, and from that territory had already launched a murderous attack on a major Western city, would have seemed barely worth an argument.

Gen. Jack Keane, a key architect of George W. Bush’s “surge” strategy, has been somewhat more modest, proposing a plan during a congressional hearing two weeks ago that will “require at least 10,000 U.S. troops” with additional “combat brigades” at the ready for “potential deployment.” This seems to be the absolute minimum position of the neocons who have spoken out on the issue.

The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog posted a very concise and remarkably thorough rebuttal to the case for troop escalation that deserves more attention than it has received. The piece, “Here’s Why We Can Only Contain the Islamic State, Not Bomb It Back to the Stone Age,” was co-written by Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations and Jacob Shapiro at Princeton. The arguments in favor of the main thesis (which is suggested by the title) are exceptionally well constructed and essentially demolish the assumptions that underlie the neocon push for escalation. I’ll quote the introduction below, but the article’s introduction is worth quoting here:

Critics have long called the U.S.’s Syria policy feckless. But the Paris attacks brought this to a head, with renewed calls for escalation to end the Islamic State’s threat and prevent another Paris.

But the critics’ policies won’t end the threat either. More than a decade of continuous warfare against militants in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere have taught us a great deal about what works, what doesn’t, and why. And that experience suggests that to defeat the Islamic State — defined as eliminating its ability to carry out Paris-style terrorism — would require a vastly greater effort than almost anyone now proposes, and a vastly greater effort than the American public is likely to support.

In practical terms, what’s possible against the Islamic State is some form of containment or suppression. And that’s essentially what the administration’s current policy amounts to. You can quibble with elements of that policy, but we’re stuck with its basic outline. The Western interests at stake are limited; the underlying problem is deeper and tougher than critics imply, and the cost to solve the real problem is much higher.

Like it or not, we are going to be living with containment and suppression for a long time.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.


One Comment

  1. Can’t wait to see what catalyzing catastrophic event, like a “New Pearl Harbor” these PNAC nutjobs will come up with next to get support for for escalation of US military intervention in Syria for their true goal, as usual, of Regime Change.

Comments are closed.