News reports today said President Obama would soon announce his approval of a military plan to move US military assets closer to the front lines in Syria and Iraq. What does that really mean?
On one level moving troops who are already there and not changing their mission seems like “no news news”. This announcement, however, could mean much more. And much more is probably not wise.
As World War II drew to a close, Allied Forces raced towards Berlin intent on getting there before Soviet troops. The race was all about territory and seizing most of Germany and its capital thereby keeping the Soviet Union contained in Eastern Europe. The Soviets had the opposite goal and wish to extend its influence as far as it could.
One possibility for the US Syrian repositioning might be similar to WWII. If one believes Assad is about to fall, then the US might want to have a presence in Syria. Subsequently, a partitioned Syria might geographically provide the West with territorial advantages helpful in concluding a larger peace plan. In return for Russian withdrawal, the US could agree (without losing face) to withdraw too.
The US Iraq repositioning could follow similar logic but this time towards Iran. Iran will have continuing interests with Iraq and will want a route to resupply its client, Hezbollah, in southern Syria.
There is, unfortunately, another explanation.
“Head to tail” thinking (the opposite of comprehensive) has marked US Middle East involvement since George W Bush’s ill-fated Iraq invasion and occupation. US military may be just saying they need their special operations personnel closer to the front than where they are currently placed without necessarily thinking about unintended consequences. Just a military tactical adjustment. Hmmm.
Until last week, it had been over two years since a US military member was killed in Iraq. With the death of a special ops master sergeant, the US may be stepping again onto a slippery slope.
The level and quality of Congressional “war talk” is extremely worrisome. There is no shortage of politicians willing to criticize President Obama, calling him weak and lacking any type of Middle East plan. If you listen, however, not a one of these chicken hawks has a comprehensive Middle East plan. The politicians are acutely aware that there is no stomach in the voting American public for another ground war in the Middle East but with elections ahead, these politicians want swagger points.
President Obama needs to demand comprehensive plans from the military which entail only the amount of troops currently there. The illusion that if ISIS were suddenly eliminated there would sunshine and peace in the Middle East must not take root in military or political thinking. ISIS is just the current group of thugs.
The Middle East is fundamentally a mess and will remain so until radical Islam is rejected and a real move to modernity is made. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
One of the great foreign affairs successes of the Cold War went by the name “containment”. US policy was aimed at containing, not eliminating the spread of Soviet Union influence. The US Middle East enemy is not Russia, it is rather the failed States/lawless radical Muslim extremist groups who are set on making a better life for themselves without adopting modernity.
Containment could be the answer once again.