The dangers of incrementalism
It is difficult to find anyone in the Obama administration who believes that putting up to 50 Special Operations soldiers on the ground in Syria will make much of a difference in the raging civil war there. And yet, the president has authorized this expansion of America’s military intervention for the same reasons that he has approved incremental escalations for the past year and a half. He believes he has to do something .
But what he is doing will not work. And in a few months, the United States will face the challenge again — back down or double down. So far, President Obama has responded each time with increased intervention.
The United States’ military involvement against the Islamic State began in June 2014 with the limited deployment of 275 soldiers to protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Within two months that had expanded to more than 1,000 military personnel, in part to support the embattled Yazidis. By November 2014, Washington had decided to send 1,500 more troops to “train, advise and assist” the Kurds and the Iraqi army.
In a smart piece for Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko provides a timeline of this escalation. He notes that “what began Aug. 8, 2014, with 25 airstrikes in the first week and food and water airdropped to save threatened Yazidis, has morphed and expanded into 600 bombs being dropped per week and more than 100 bundles of ammunition supplied to an unnamed faction of 5,000 Syrian rebels.” And this was before the Special Operations forces were sent to Syria.
And yet, the strength of the Islamic State does not appear to be much diminished, even by the administration’s account. This is hardly surprising. The Syrian struggle is complex and ferocious, with many outside powers — Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, now Russia — aiding many different groups, with supposed allies often at cross-purposes with each other. It’s difficult to see how a modest U.S. intervention would shift that landscape.
The best book about the Vietnam War remains “The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked” by Leslie Gelb and Richard Betts. The authors explain that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations never believed that their interventions would succeed : “Each time they turned the ratchet of escalation up another notch they did not believe that the increase would provide victory in the classic sense of decisive defeat of the enemy. At best they hoped they might be lucky, but they did not expect to be.” Both administrations escalated because they believed that they had to do something. And so, the United States went from having a few hundred advisers in South Vietnam in 1960 to more than half a million troops by 1968.
In 1967, the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who worked in the Kennedy administration, wrote, “In retrospect, Vietnam is a triumph of the politics of inadvertence. We have achieved our present entanglement, not after due and deliberate consideration, but through a series of small decisions.”
The Vietnam analogy is crude and imperfect for many reasons. And yet the basic logic of America’s gradual intervention is hauntingly familiar. You opt for incrementalism, hoping to get lucky.
I have supported Obama’s reluctance to get more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war. I do not see how U.S. intervention will resolve things militarily or even improve the humanitarian situation there. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls, Damascus implodes in chaos and the Syrian army goes underground and fights as an insurgency, will human rights improve?
And yet, it is becoming hard to describe U.S. policy as one of restraint when it now involves more than 3,500 American forces actively engaged in Iraq and Syria in violation of many of the administration’s own stated policies:
● U.S. troops were not supposed to be in Iraq because the Iraqi parliament refused to pass a law providing them with immunity. (No such law exists today.) ● The legal “authorization” for this large, multibillion-dollar intervention against the Islamic State is murky — it rests mainly on a congressional vote to battle al-Qaeda 14 years ago, when the Islamic State did not exist. ● The United States was not going to put boots on the ground in Syria.
In the end, despite his inconsistencies and vacillations, I believe that Obama will keep the U.S. intervention in Syria small and limited. But he will leave his successor with a terrible dilemma in just the way that the Kennedy administration left Lyndon Johnson.
The next U.S. president will face the stark reality that America’s involvement in Syria will not have resolved matters. But the U.S. government will have made commitments, sent troops, spent billions and lost lives in that conflict. At that point, can the U.S. president back down or will he — or she — have to double down, hoping to get lucky?
© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group