After Ramadi, the US has no stomach for boots on the ground
With the Islamic State (ISIS) rolling across Iraq and Syria, US President Barack Obama’s critics have been warning of doom and defeat with the passion of Old Testament prophets.
“We are not only failing, we are losing this war,” retired US Army General Jack Keane told the US Senate only days after Ramadi fell to ISIS.
In thunderous tones, Keane dismissed US strategy as “fundamentally flawed” in Iraq and non-existent in Syria. Meanwhile, ISIS is expanding “beyond Iraq and Syria into Sinai, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan”, Keane warned.
At the same Senate hearing, Frederick Kagan, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the only hope for Iraq was to deploy 15,000-20,000 US troops to serve as forward air controllers, advise Iraqi ground forces and accelerate training. Kagan’s proposal would represent a more than five-fold increase over the number of US troops in Iraq.
“Anything less than that is simply not serious,” Kagan said.
Both men were among early proponents of the Iraq troop surge of 2007, when President George W. Bush sent tens of thousands of additional military personnel to Iraq. Bush took the step against the advice of influential voices in Congress, the media and even the Pentagon. Right or wrong, the notion that the surge “won the war” is widely accepted in the United States.
But do not expect a Bush-like response from the current occupant of the White House. As a junior senator from Illinois, Obama opposed the surge.
He won the presidency in part on the promise to end the Bush-era wars that followed al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States. Military intervention is not Obama’s preferred way of doing business unless, as he said last year at West Point, “our core interests demand it”.
Living up to his nickname of “No Drama Obama”, the president downplayed the loss of Ramadi, describing it as a “tactical setback” and telling the Atlantic magazine that “I don’t think we are losing”. No need for any bold new strategy when the current one is working. That was the same line parroted by the Pentagon and the US command in Baghdad in the months before the 2007 surge.
Despite the “steady as she goes” public assurances, the loss of Ramadi and Palmyra in Syria shocked the administration, which insisted ISIS was on the defensive. The White House may agree to limited measures, such as sending a small number of “forward air controllers” to call in air strikes or relax restrictions on special operations missions, such as the recent raid that killed an ISIS financier in Syria.
Even those modest steps would likely come only under pressure from either the Pentagon or Democratic Party powerbrokers worried about the effects on next year’s national elections.
That may disappoint some Arab capitals. For now, however, the president’s caution is in line with the views of American voters, at least those likely to support the Democrats. Recent surveys indicate the public is displeased with Obama’s handling of the crisis but there’s also little stomach for sending large numbers of ground forces back to Iraq.
Following the loss of Ramadi, a survey of 1,000 likely voters by Rasmussen Reports showed that support for American “boots on the ground” had fallen to 35% from a high of 52% in February, even though 43% of respondents said ISIS was winning the war.
Why the contradiction? The answer lies in American perceptions of the 2003-11 war. Many Americans, including veterans and Obama-hating right-wingers, say the war presented the Iraqis with an opportunity that they squandered. Images of Iraqi forces abandoning US-supplied weapons and fleeing in American-supplied Humvees reinforced that view.
Obama himself summed up that sentiment, telling the Atlantic that if Iraqis “aren’t willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them”.