There is a common refrain in American politics when politicians discuss taking military action in foreign countries. “[insert country of interest here] is going to be another Afghanistan… another Iraq… another Vietnam.” In Vietnam, what began with light air support and humanitarian aid lead to deployment of “advisors,” who invariably were involved in firefights, escalating to the deployment of actual combat boots on the ground and, eventually, a full-scale war. To the credit of those who stand by this mantra, it is always safer to be overly circumspect about the dangers of going to war than to support the unnecessary loss of human life, something that occurs time after time when we intervene abroad. We heard it with Libya when we only provided air support. We heard it in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War when we eventually decided to abstain from offering any sort of military reprisal for the use of chemical weapons, which crossed a supposed “red line.” And we hear it now, with regards to the fight against ISIL.
On February 12th, President Obama requested an AUMF (Authorization for the Use of Military Force) against ISIL. The president has expressly stated that his draft AUMF “would not authorize long-term, large-scale ground combat operations… local forces, rather than U.S. military forces, should be deployed to conduct such operations.” However, the administration already has the “legal authority to conduct military operations that are already underway in Iraq and Syria” according to a March 11th USA Today article, “prompting a question of what would be different if an Authorization for Use of Military Force was approved.
Nevertheless, in the same press release, the president states that the authorization he proposed “would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against ISIL leadership.” This is in addition to authorizing “the use of U.S. forces in situations where ground combat operations are not expected or intended, such as intelligence collection and sharing, missions to enable kinetic strikes, or the provision of operational planning and other forms of advice and assistance to partner forces.” In doing so, Obama may lay the groundwork for the second step in the refrain–transitioning from an auxiliary role in which the United States provides support from the air to a slightly more direct role in which U.S. forces are on the ground as part of an “advise and assist” strategy.
If Obama has a legacy when it comes to military involvement in the Middle East, it is following the path of least resistance. Everything from the prodigal use of drone strikes to the timing of the Iraq troop withdrawal to the current AUMF against ISIL is designed to be the safest, and thus most convenient, play possible. As a Democratic president wrongly perceived by many on the far right to be secretly Muslim, un-American, or, at the very least, anti-war, the path of least resistance (dissuading any assumptions his detractors might have had about him while fostering a spirit of bipartisanship) would be sticking to a traditionally uncompromising and unrelentingly aggressive policy against radical Islamic terrorists, with little to no account of civilian casualties. By withdrawing troops from Iraq when he did, the president was able to use as much time as politically possible to stabilize Iraq while claiming credit for the withdrawal before his reelection. By sticking with a diplomatic solution after the Syrian regime crossed “a red line” with the use of chemical weapons, the president avoided another conflict abroad while preventing Assad’s regime from using chemical weapons ever again. Finally, Obama’s current AUMF seems to be an attempt to strike a middle ground for appeasing the GOP, who are crying for swift and unrestrained action, and the Democrats, who want guarantees that this action will not morph into a full-scale, boots on the ground, war. According to a March 11th article in the Huffington Post, “Democrats say the language is too broad when it comes to the use of ground troops and geographic limitations, and Republicans say it’s not broad enough.”
Whether or not this new AUMF becomes another example for our war-weary refrain remains to be seen. However, it reinforces the idea that the one thing uniting wars like Vietnam and Iraq is the irrevocable loss of American lives and taxpayer dollars. While these are the two things most readily visible within our national interest, this idea does not give much concern to the unnecessary destruction of human life and property in general. There’s one more aspect to the philosophy of those who support further military interventions abroad, and that is the misconception that the United States can kill its way out of any conflict. More airstrikes and an increased presence on the ground may certainly be warranted, but we should keep in mind that instances of friendly fire or collateral damage give otherwise ordinary civilians a huge incentive to join the enemy. And if victory is defined by whether or not we ultimately “degrade and destroy” ISIL, giving Iraqis and Syrians a reason not to join them will certainly be a part of it.