March 3, 2024

Boots on the ground can win the war and lose the peace

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 10 September 2014


Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – President Obama promises he will not put boots on the ground in Iraq or Syria or any of the other hot spots that are demanding U.S. attention and resources, creating the assumption that this commitment is made because the American people are war weary. The theory is that after fighting two long wars for more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public would not countenance another large-scale commitment of troops. But that theory is wrong.

Another reasoning also misses the mark in part. General Anthony Zinni distinguished himself during the run-up to the Iraq war by telling George W. Bush’s war council that they needed a lot more troops not only for the invasion, but also for the aftermath. Bush’s people didn’t listen to Zinni’s advice, and we know how that turned out. Now the retired Marine general is out with a new book called “Leading the Charge,” in which he makes the case that America’s political leadership has repeatedly failed in setting out clearly defined and attainable objectives when it sends young men and women into war.

He is especially critical of Obama’s oft-stated pledge that he will not commit U.S. troops to a ground combat role. Zinni says it’s never good to tell your enemies what you will or won’t do, that it’s better to keep them guessing. By ruling out ground troops, Obama gives America’s enemies the upper hand. Given Zinni’s distinguished record as a soldier and as a writer with several books under his belt, his argument deserves consideration.

Respectfully, however, there is another way to look at Obama’s insistence that there be no American boots on the ground in the conflict he is launching. If we put his commitment in historical context, all the fighting America has done since World War II has pointed in one direction, and that is if U.S. troops go into a country and stay there, they are looked upon by the local populace as an occupying force.

There are exceptions of course, but as the saying goes, they only prove the rule. South Koreans saw American soldiers as liberators, but that was after being overrun by the North Korean communists. And in Europe, when U.S. troops were clearly occupiers in Germany and Japan, they were welcomed as the most benevolent occupiers the grateful populations of those two war-ravaged countries could imagine. It’s hard to conjure up anyplace on the planet today where that formula could be repeated.

In the conflicts since then, in Vietnam, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, many people saw American troops as occupiers with all the negative consequences of that relationship, a view encouraged and propagandized by our enemies. It’s one thing to force the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait, as the first President Bush did in 1991 with Desert Storm. But if the U.S. decapitates the regime and then stays, as Bush Two did, that’s trouble.

Joe Klein’s 2002 book about Bill Clinton’s presidency, “The Natural”, attributed the following prescient thoughts to two presidents: “[T]he Clinton national security team tacitly accepted the first Bush administration’s policy in Iraq: Saddam in power was better than the instability that might occur if he was removed – Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds splitting off into states of their own, which might . . . greatly strengthen Iran . . .”

Bush Two did not agree, and much of the chaos in the Middle East today is directly traceable to his ill-conceived decision to invade Iraq in 2003, thereby empowering Iran and inciting a Jihadist movement that rages today in the form of ISIS, the self-declared Islamic state.

Obama is doing the right thing in assembling a coalition of the willing and insisting that others provide the troops for combat.  It’s not because Americans refuse to suffer casualties. We suffered 58,000 dead in Vietnam and 4,000 plus dead with many thousands more wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the ability to suffer is not the same as the willingness to support, and that willingness dissipates in direct proportion to the incoherence of the cause.

This is why the argument for a desirable, attainable objective drives Obama’s strategy. He knows that Boots on the ground can win the war and lose the peace, which is what happened in Iraq when American liberators came to be perceived as occupiers by a significant portion of the Iraqi populace. The model should be Afghanistan in 2001, when U.S. airpower and covert assistance was integral to the Afghan Northern Alliance’s victory over the ruling Taliban.

Twitter @WMerryGoRound

© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.



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