As ever, speaking strictly for myself and not my organization.
I was deeply troubled by news in the Washington Post today.
Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who served under Obama until last year, became the latest high-profile skeptic on Thursday, telling the House Intelligence Committee that a blanket prohibition on ground combat was tying the military’s hands. “Half-hearted or tentative efforts, or airstrikes alone, can backfire on us and actually strengthen our foes’ credibility,” he said. “We may not wish to reassure our enemies in advance that they will not see American boots on the ground.”
Mattis’s comments came two days after Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took the rare step of publicly suggesting that a policy already set by the commander in chief could be reconsidered.
Despite Obama’s promise that he would not deploy ground combat forces, Dempsey made clear that he didn’t want to rule out the possibility, if only to deploy small teams in limited circumstances. He also acknowledged that Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, the commander for the Middle East, had already recommended doing so in the case of at least one battle in Iraq but was overruled.
My hypothesis is that Gen. Mattis is missing the more important part of the picture. Over commitment can backfire on us, leading partners to avoid making hard choices because they know the U.S. will solve their problems for them. The outcome will primarily depend not on what the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, aka ISIS, aka, Islamic State) thinks about our credibility to escalate. Instead, what matters more is what the Iraqi government, the Gulf States, and to a lesser extent the Kurdish autonomous regional government, think about whether they can free-ride on us. Prime Minister Maliki was pushed out in large part because Iraqi power brokers [knew we] would not bail him out. Unfortunately, P.M. Maliki was more a reflection than a cause of Iraqi sectarian problems and in the near future we'll likely need to keep the pressure up to control Shia aligned militias and to increase the chances of Sunni militias breaking with ISIL. Our Gulf State partners do appear to be genuinely horrified by ISIL, but [private funders] from their nations were directly complicit in its rise and you can bet that they'll be happy to slow walk their support if they the United States will just escalate if things get out of control. Bargaining credibility matters less with autonomous Kurdistan which has more at stake than even the government of Iraq, though presumably
But Greg, didn't you support similar calls when it came to the Iraq war?
Yes. Here's the big difference to me. If an invasion or conventional war is under-resourced the consequence can be large scale U.S. casualties or U.S. troops being stuck in a quagmire for years made worse by a badly implemented start. In this case, if air power isn't sufficient, we can reevaluate, but we won't be stuck in the midst of an occupation or facing large scale casualties.
But aren't the generals right that we may not be able to destroy ISIL without ground power?
Yes, but we also can't guarantee the destruction of ISIL with ground power either. Can we pacify portions of the country for a period at high cost? Sure, but unless you're willing to do a ground invasion of Syria they'll still potentially have a base. If you are willing to send U.S. ground troops into a three way civil war in Syria, then we have a bigger argument.
So how can President Obama assert that we'll destroy ISIL
That word is puffery, perhaps ill-chosen, perhaps a rhetorical excess common in war, quite possibly both. Regardless, Gen. Dempsey effectively tested the premise of which is the higher priority in the strategy, destroying ISIL or preventing the U.S. from being drawn into another Iraq or Afghanistan. President Obama has clearly made the strategic choice that avoiding another large scale U.S. war is the higher priority [Zach Beaucamp does a good job of laying this out in greater detail]. Weighing these fundamental priorities is a strategic choice, not a resourcing choice. It is entirely fair game to point out that the administration has made this choice and hawkish politicians are certainly free to argue for more wars, its a free country, that's there right. However, now that the priorities are clear, from a civil-military perspective this as primarily a debate about strategy, not about implementation.
[Update: Tuned wording slightly after posting. Second update added a few more links and some word changes in brackets.]