Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mission creep: A history via current events



CALIFORNIA Sen. Hiram Johnson, in a 1917 statement before the United States Senate related to the country’s entrance into World War I, is thought to have said the first casualty of war is truth. As the United States prepares for its third conflict in the Middle East in 22 years, the first casualty of the current timed-release war is apparently language. The second casualty may be memory.

Explaining the actions already taken against the ISIS terrorist organization, Secretary of State John Kerry described it for CNN as “a major counter-terrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.” Interviewed recently by MSNBC’s Ronan Farrow, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said “we have initiated hostilities against ISIS, that’s for sure.”

Last Wednesday, in his address to the nation, President Obama called it a “counterterrorism campaign.” There’s deep reluctance to use the perfectly serviceable, thoroughly idiomatic word those actions deserve. “War.”

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Despite disagreement over what the hell to call this embryonic conflict, there’s been bipartisan support for doing something. Democrat Pelosi and Republican House Speaker John Boehner actually agreed on Obama’s plan to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels in effort to defeat ISIS.

And The House of Representatives followed suit, voting Wednesday, 273-156, to approve President Obama’s plan. The Senate takes up the bill on Thursday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he expects passage.

To that point, Congress had engaged in much gnashing of teeth about not knowing what “the endgame” is. Which made sense. Until very recently, we didn’t have a clear picture of what the begin-game looked like. That started to change on Sunday and Monday.

That’s when the United States began bombing ISIS strongholds outside Baghdad, the first such action that close to the Iraqi capital, as well as another strike near Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq.

“The air strike southwest of Baghdad was the first strike taken as part of our expanded efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions to hit ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense.” the U.S. Central Command said in a statement, alluding to a widening of the bombing campaign under way since August in northern Iraq.

Centcom announced seven more Iraq airstrikes on Tuesday and Wednesday. So far, 174 airstrikes in Iraq have taken place since the United States  intervened on Aug. 7.

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THE INABILITY to describe the U.S. military action points to a wider message at cross-purposes. On Wednesday at MacDill Air Force base in Florida, President Obama reasserted his intention that the United States would not be pulled into a conventional combat role, in Iraq, Syria or anywhere else.

“I will not commit you and the rest of our armed forces to fighting another ground war in Iraq,” the president said.

But Gen. Ray Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, told The New York Times and other news organizations that ground forces would be needed to effectively drive ISIS back.

Admitting that air strikes would have a definite short-term utility, Odierno said that eventually, “you’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going in and rooting them out.” An all-air campaign “will not be the end all and be all solution in Iraq,” he said of ISIS, which he called “a long-term threat” to Europe and the United States.

Odierno’s comments followed by a day the counsel of his boss, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said Tuesday that, if the current airstrike strategy failed, “I would go back to the president and make the recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

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There’s pretty much uniform agreement that “boots on the ground,” the overworked euphemism for ground forces who’ll do the actual fighting, will be needed to repel ISIS. The rub comes over whose boots will be there.

While reflexive hawks like South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Arizona Sen. John McCain insist that only American forces can get the job done, the White House is actively pursuing a more global coalition including the Arab states with the most to gain, and to lose, in a fight with ISIS.


In recent days, thanks to Kerry’s frequent-flier diplomacy, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have pledged to “do their share” on combatting ISIS. But what “do their share” means is still a known unknown. And at least one key player hopes to sit on the sidelines that don’t really exist: Turkey hasn’t signed on yet, probably because of the 47 Turkish diplomats being held by ISIS or its terrorist proxies.

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AFTER MEETINGS with Kerry, those countries pledged to stem the flow of foreign fighters, provide humanitarian relief, thwart ISIS financing, rebuild areas hardest-hit by ISIS forces, support those states facing the most serious ISIS threats, and, “as appropriate,” participate in “a coordinated military campaign.”

Last week I noted that the president, in his speech before the nation, appeared to give “an address that indicates he’s got cards he ain’t showing.” In the days since then, it’s become clear that the president was probably trying to work with cards he hadn’t even been dealt.

The president is trying hard to solidify a coalition in utero, a still-inchoate group of nations reluctant to sign on to a partnership, each for their own reasons — reasons that individually become insignificant when compared with the collective dangers that face all of them, whether they join the coalition or not.

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The United Kingdom is the latest case in point. British Prime Minister David Cameron has up to now held back on any decision to commit the UK to a shooting war against ISIS. That reluctance didn’t stop the murder of David Cawthorne Haines, a British aid worker beheaded by ISIS on Saturday.

On Sunday, Cameron vowed to confront ISIS — "Step by step, we must drive back, dismantle and ultimately destroy ISIL and what it stands for,” he said. — but he didn’t say clearly whether this pledge would include British military might. Cameron said the UK would face down ISIS “in a calm, deliberate way — but with an iron determination. We will not do so on our own – but by working closely with our allies, not just the United States and in Europe, but also in the region.”

How Cameron and his government will move now, after Haines’ murder and with another British subject, Alan Henning, facing a similar fate, isn’t clear. Yet. The House of Commons is said to be planning a debate over UK armed forces joining the United States for air strikes in Iraq.

In the meantime, UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg seemed to sound a kind of conditional alarm on a Wednesday radio show, as reported by The Guardian: “I've been clear — and this will of course have to be debated and voted on in parliament — if Britain is ever asked to actually participate in military action, even air strikes, we will then have that debate when we know exactly what is being proposed to us. At the moment, nothing specific has been put to us.”

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PRESIDENT OBAMA attempted to set a marker — or is it a red line? — when he spoke to U.S. troops Wednesday in Florida. “The American forces that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” he said.

Kerry, testifying Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, read from the same page of the hymnal. “The U.S. troops that have been deployed to Iraq do not and will not have a combat mission,” he said on the Hill. Those statements, for all their conclusive intent, do not and cannot preclude the possibility that those forces will face combat once they’re in country — regardless of what the mission is supposed to be in theory.

Therein lies the risk of “mission creep” — the escalation of the scope of a military operation beyond that intended by the mission's designers, despite their best-laid plans or stated intentions. A tweet from progressive political strategist Bob Brigham laid this out in graphic terms for the current situation:


It’s something that Democratic West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin appreciates from a historical perspective. “I’m old enough to remember the Vietnam War,” he said on MSNBC Wednesday. “We didn’t start out [there] in a military operation.” Manchin referred to the advisory role that U.S. troops had in November 1955, when President Eisenhower ordered the U.S. Military Assistance Advisor Group to assume responsibility for training South Vietnamese forces against the Communists — taking over for the French, who would finally exit in defeat the following April.

In May 1961, President Kennedy sent 400 U.S. Army Special Forces personnel to Vietnam to train more of those South Vietnamese troops. “We should consider joining with the VietNamese in a clear cut defensive alliance which might include stationing of U.S. forces on VietNamese soil,” deputy defense secretary Roswell Gilpatric wrote to Kennedy before JFK gave the order.

In November 1961, Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act, which directed “military assistance to countries which are on the rim of the Communist world and under direct attack.” By the time it went into effect in August 1962, about 3,000 U.S. military advisors and other personnel were in Vietnam.

President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, in November 1963. By year’s end, the number of U.S. military personnel in Vietnam had climbed to 16,000. On March 6, 1964, on a visit to Vietnam, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pledged support for the South Vietnamese government in its fight against Communist insurgents, telling Gen. Nguyen Khanh, the leader of South Vietnam, “we’ll stay for as long as it takes.”

The rest is history.

Image credits: Obama: WH.gov. ISIS on the march: via The Independent (UK). Odierno: Defense Department. Haines: From ISIS video. Tweet: @BobBingham. Obama (lower): pool feed via MSNBC. Kennedy: Public domain.

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