From 'No Boots on the Ground' to 'Direct Action'
Ash Carter lays out a shift in Obama's "smart power" strategy.
In his 2012 re-election campaign, Barack Obama repeatedly insisted that al-Qaida was “on the run” and that he had managed the war in Iraq to a “responsible” conclusion. We received a reminder that the former was untrue in Benghazi, Libya, back on Sept. 11, 2012, but the latter assertion took a little longer to disprove. In the summer of 2014 the Islamic State (a.k.a. the “JV team”) went on the offensive and gobbled up large swaths of Iraq and Syria to establish what it called a caliphate.
With that track record, you had to figure the pronouncement that “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again” was going to be short-lived. Heck, Obama’s even going to maintain a larger presence in Afghanistan.
One sign of the escalation in Iraq was a raid last week on an Islamic State prison — a mission in which Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler lost his life. Originally, the raid was termed “a unique circumstance,” but as more was revealed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter finally admitted Wheeler died in combat. Yet he was still careful to point out the U.S. wasn’t acting in a combat role in Iraq.
Pressed further, however, Carter now states that “direct action on the ground” will be part of our fight against the Islamic State. The pieces have been placed for similar operations, though, as the influx of military personnel Obama authorized last year were already there in support roles, according to inside sources. But this raid only became news because Sgt. Wheeler was KIA.
Update: Meanwhile, Obama is also going to put boots on the ground in Syria.
Observers have been critical, however, of both the tempo of anti-Islamic State operations and the failure to train a competent Syrian opposition force. In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator and presidential candidate Lindsey Graham ripped into the Syrian plan, calling it “a half-assed strategy at best.”
Unfortunately, this escalation also comes at a time when American military power is at a nadir, with all of its branches at or near their smallest, least prepared point in decades. Although it operates in a vital, oil-rich part of the world, the Islamic State is more of a nuisance compared to real threats posed by Russia and China in recent days. However, it’s an easier nut to crack with existing resources and enables Obama to save face.
The last eight years have featured red lines, reset buttons and negotiating our position down from strength to weakness in the belief that a deal had to be made. The only thing taken off the table has been military action, but while Obama may not be interested in war it seems to have gained quite an interest in him.