The nation has had several days to digest President Obama's remarks on Wednesday night, when he outlined his strategy for dealing with the ISIS/ISIL/IS militants in Iraq and Syria. The hood ornament of his plan involves increased air strikes against the group, along with the formation of a broad international coalition, which he claimed will serve as a one-two punch to knock out this newest iteration of "The Bad Guys Who Must Be Destroyed At All Costs."
"No boots on the ground," promised the president. Aside from his description of the air campaign, this oath to avoid re-re-re-inserting combat troops into the conflict was central to his argument. By and large, according to numerous polls taken after the speech, the citizenry climbed on board the bandwagon by a fairly sizable margin. Newspapers all across the country ran permutations of a headline that read, "While Weary of War, Majority Supports Air Strikes Against ISIS."
The backstop for this support is nebulous at best - a general sense of, "Well, we can't just do nothing!" - even as the "something" proposed by the president is equally murky, for two reasons.
First, the broad coalition described by the president on Wednesday does not appear to be coalescing. Germany and Turkey have ruled out joining in air strikes in Syria. The British Foreign Secretary said early last week his nation will likewise refrain from joining the fray, but the recent beheading of a British citizen by ISIS may have changed the geometry of the equation; Prime Minister David Cameron made some bellicose statements after video of the murder was released, but the Scottish independence vote looms. The Scots deeply disapproved of the last Iraq war, and the UK desperately wants to keep Scotland on board, so the UK's ultimate commitment is questionable.
As far as assembling allies in the region, the support gathered by Secretary of State John Kerry during his consultations with various Arab nations is tepid at best. Jordan and Egypt, in particular, both gave Secretary Kerry a similar version of, "You're on your own." Iran is chomping at the bit to join the fight against ISIS, but they are not even invited to the meeting in Paris on Monday to discuss strategy, because Mr. Kerry says "It would not be appropriate" for them to attend.
So there you have it. Apart from France, our usual European allies are choosing to sit this one out to one degree or another, and most of the Arab nations - which, it should be noted, have the most vested interest in seeing these marauders eliminated - are offering only token support. Iran, a country with a very capable standing army, security force and air force, has been shown the door.
That leaves the Kurdish Peshmerga, a force whose abilities have been exposed as less than efficient by the ISIS onslaught, and the Iraq Army, which dropped its rifles and ran at the first whiff of cordite when they came up against the militants. The Obama administration was hoping for assistance from "moderate" Syrian rebels, until it was announced on Saturday that those rebels had reached a cease-fire agreement with ISIS. No help there.
We come, then, to reason number two, which can be summed up in one word: Mosul.
The city of Mosul in northern Iraq is home to some two million residents, a majority of whom are Sunni. It hosts the nation's largest university, enjoys significant regional oil deposits, and is the hub of Iraq's main oil pipeline to Turkey. Most of the 150+ air strikes conducted by the US in Iraq have been directed at dislodging ISIS from the Mosul Dam, the largest in the country, which provides electricity to millions. If that dam were to be breached, those millions would be flooded out of their homes, and much of Iraq would go dark.
In June of this year, ISIS staged a surprise attack on Mosul, routed Iraqi security forces and police, and took control of the city. Hundreds of thousands fled the violence, including members of the defeated security forces, who shed their uniforms and ran with the civilians. ISIS is now dug into Mosul, surrounded by the hundreds of thousands of civilians who did not flee. Many of those who remained, while not necessarily supportive of their new masters, are so distrustful of the government in Baghdad that they are willing to hunker down and ride it out.
All the happy talk about air strikes does not in any way whatsoever jibe with the reality that is Mosul. Any ISIS militants caught out in the open can be dispatched from the air, to be sure, but they own a city. Dislodging ISIS from Mosul will require a large ground force that has training and experience in urban house-to-house warfare. The only other option is to go Dresden on Mosul and raze it to the ground. Without ground troops, or the war-crime obliteration of an entire city, there is simply no way to defeat ISIS with air power alone.
The Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army lack the capabilities required for urban combat. The "moderate" Syrian rebels have struck a deal. Most of Europe's main powers won't even join in the air campaign. The Arab nations in the region, for the most part, fobbed Secretary Kerry off with vague talk of "support," and Iran is flatly not invited.
There is only one nation on Earth involved in this whose military has a decade's worth of experience in urban combat: the United States.
But the president said, "No boots on the ground."
The fact that ISIS controls Mosul is not compatible with the idea that air strikes alone can accomplish the president's plan. Ground troops will be required to ultimately accomplish the stated goal, and since we seem to be in this applecart pretty much by ourselves, it isn't difficult to guess which uniform those ground troops will be wearing.
As far as the president's promise goes, note well that Secretary Kerry opened the door to the deployment of US ground troops if "something very dramatic changes." That dramatic "something," like as not, will be ISIS falling back into Mosul and burrowing in alongside the civilian population. At that point, air strikes will be rendered impotent, only serving to kill and maim civilians in that already-battered city.
So, for those of you in favor of the president's air strikes campaign, who say we can't just do nothing, let me be blunt: given the lack of international support, and the uselessness of an air campaign in the face of Mosul's occupation, what you are in favor of is the equivalent of doing nothing. We will blow some stuff up and kill some people, and every bomb dropped and missile fired will transfer more of your tax dollars into the bank accounts of "defense" companies. That's it, period, end of file.
I am not, with this, advocating for the deployment of US ground troops. I believe there are a number of ways to skin this particular cat without going to war in Iraq for the third time in 24 years. I am also firmly in the camp of none other than President Obama's former top counterterrorism adviser, Daniel Benjamin, who describes the ramped-up depiction of the alleged ISIS threat as a "farce" peddled by "members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified."
"It's hard to imagine a better indication of the ability of elected officials and TV talking heads to spin the public into a panic," Mr. Benjamin told the New York Times, "with claims that the nation is honeycombed with sleeper cells, that operatives are streaming across the border into Texas or that the group will soon be spraying Ebola virus on mass transit systems - all on the basis of no corroborated information."
Speaking of spinning the public into a panic, it is also worthwhile to know that the loudest drumbeats for war in the media are coming from "pundits" who are umbilically and financially connected to the defense industry. This next war, like the last war, stands to make them a great deal of money by selling US-made bombs for use against the American-made weapons they sold to us already, which are now in the hands of ISIS, because war profit is a wheel, and it always comes around.
So there is that, but also this, put plainly: if you support the air strikes plan proposed by the president, because we have to do "something," understand full well what it is you are supporting.