The first law of military conflict is escalation. In General Carl von Clausewitz’s 19th century classic treatise, On War, Clausewitz could have been writing about Vietnam – or Syria – when he laid out his theory that escalation is built into the very logic of war.
That’s why many commentators felt President Obama’s "no boots on the ground" pledge, made when the war began, was inherently "disingenuous" – a promise impossible to keep. President Obama promised and promised – at least 16 times – that there would be no boots on the ground in Syria. But, it wasn’t just the president making promises. Members of Congress used the "no boots on the ground" pledge to dodge an up or down authorization vote on the war.
"Slipping free of the logic of escalation will not be easy. Only serious and well thought out political solutions can break the inexorable chain of military escalation."
The logic of escalation is not easily resisted with such promises. That is why sending these troops into battle should trouble all Americans. As the "no boots on the ground" mantra fades away, there’s no telling how many U.S. troops will ultimately be sent into Iraq and Syria. If the U.S. military escalation announced this week for both Syria and Iraq doesn’t bring ISIS to its knees over the next six months will there be a push for an even larger U.S. troop presence? The logic of escalation says it’s only a matter of time.
This escalation needs to be looked at in the context of the last year of the U.S.-led bombing campaign. The United States has spent over $4.75 billion on over 6,059 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. What has been accomplished? The U.S. Central Command website lists metrics based on the logic of war. There have been 3,956 buildings, 3,930 fighting positions and 561 staging areas damaged or destroyed. One is left to wonder how many of those buildings were schools, clinics or homes.
All this kinetic damage has not decisively pushed backed ISIS militarily, let alone politically. Even the very few symbolic military victories that the U.S.-led coalition has enjoyed have come at a staggering price. Months after its "liberation" from ISIS, the Kurdish town of Kobani remained a "haunting, apocalyptic vista of hollowed out facades and streets lined with unexploded ordnance." And that’s one of the "bright spots" in a war that has done little to reduce the power of ISIS.
There are already roughly 3,500 troops in war zones in Iraq and now Syria. When the administration soft-pedals their presence an "advise and assist mission" the reality of those 7,000 U.S. combat boots on the ground can’t be erased.
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When it's Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) who comes to the rescue to slice through the doublespeak you know things are getting strange. "I have to say, I'm mystified. It sounds like … something out of a George Orwell novel," Cotton said about claims that troops in Iraq and Syria are not combat troops. "We clearly have troops on the ground who are fighting in close quarters with our enemy, the Islamic State." While Cotton called the president’s bluff about the troops’ role, he simultaneously doubled down on the president’s foolish bet by calling for even more combat troops. That’s a bad omen for where U.S. policy is headed.
But there is much the U.S. can do that is constructive. A bi-partisan bill by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to increase funding for the refugee crisis deserves the support of every member of congress. The U.S. is not paying its fair share of the aid funding needed to address the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II. If we increase our aid to refugees throughout the region caused by the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, we can help stop the conflict from spreading. Such aid also protects vulnerable refugees from ISIS’s recruiting pitch, which often uses an economic as well as an ideological hook. Such funding is a moral imperative, but it also can do much more to stabilize the region than dropping increasing tons of ordnance.
Our country could also do more to resettle the most vulnerable refugees. Many refugee assistance groups are calling for the United State to welcome at least 100,000 Syrian refugees. Increased funding to deal with a backlog of refugees that have already applied for asylum is also needed. There’s been a disturbing fear-based backlash against Syrian refugees on Capitol Hill and leadership is needed to return U.S. policy to one based on our historic support for refugees and immigrants from war-torn nations.
Finally, we need a surge – a diplomatic one. There are some important glimmers of hope. Seventeen nations meeting in Vienna this week agreed to support a UN-led diplomatic process to address the crisis in Syria. But this is only a beginning. The United States must make diplomatic support of this process a number one foreign policy priority for the U.S.. Likewise in Iraq there is a need for diplomatic finesse to seriously address the sectarianism that brought ISIS to power in Iraqi cities. Without greater strides in combating sectarianism and improving governance in Iraq there will be no peace there.
Slipping free of the logic of escalation will not be easy. Only serious and well thought out political solutions can break the inexorable chain of military escalation. Thankfully, a number of members of Congress are opposing this escalation. Congress must come together to reject military escalation and support the truly effective diplomatic, political, and humanitarian solutions that will save Syrian lives and simultaneously make Americans safer.