The U.S. and Is­lamic State

Obama is right to try to de­feat the group and to do it with­out putting Amer­i­can troops on the front lines.

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Pres­i­dent Obama in­sists that he has no plans to de­ploy U.S. com­bat forces in Iraq, even as he has promised to “de­grade and even­tu­ally de­stroy” Is­lamic State. The White House sees no con­tra­dic­tion be­tween these two com­mit­ments, but Amer­i­cans are un­der­stand­ably anx­ious given the in­cre­men­tal es­ca­la­tion of U.S. in­volve­ment in the war against the group.

Last week Obama an­nounced that he was send­ing an ad­di­tional 450 mil­i­tary per­son­nel to “train, ad­vise and as­sist” Iraqi forces at a mil­i­tary base in eastern An­bar province. That de­ploy­ment will in­crease the U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence to 3,550.

“This de­ci­sion does not rep­re­sent a change in mis­sion,” Sec­re­tary of De­fense Ash­ton Carter said. That’s true if one dates the U.S. mis­sion to Obama’s an­nounce­ment in Septem­ber that he was launch­ing a “com­pre­hen­sive and sus­tained” ef­fort to de­feat Is­lamic State. Ear­lier, how­ever, Obama had por­trayed airstrikes in Iraq as a tem­po­rary mea­sure de­signed to pro­tect U.S. per­son­nel and al­le­vi­ate a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis.

The Times has sup­ported the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s more as­sertive pol­icy with two pro­vi­sos: that Obama abide by his prom­ise not to de­ploy U.S. ground troops, and that he se- cure ex­plicit con­gres­sional au­tho­riza­tion. Obama has asked for such au­thor­ity, but he has un­der­mined the ur­gency of that re­quest by in­sist­ing that he can legally pros­e­cute a war against Is­lamic State un­der the con­gres­sional res­o­lu­tions passed more than a decade ago to au­tho­rize force against the plan­ners of 9/11 and the regime of Sad­dam Hus­sein. It’s vi­tal that Congress en­act a new Au­tho­riza­tion for Use of Mil­i­tary Force tai­lored to Is­lamic State, one that ex­plic­itly rules out the de­ploy­ment of U.S. ground forces.

If de­feat­ing Is­lamic State is such a high pri­or­ity, some might ask, why should the U.S. refuse to com­mit ground troops and in­stead rely on dispir­ited and dis­or­ga­nized Iraqi forces? The best an­swer to that is a sober­ing statis­tic: the nearly 4,500 Amer­i­cans who lost their lives in Op­er­a­tion Iraqi Free­dom, the pro­tracted con­flict that fol­lowed Ge­orge W. Bush’s dis­as­trous de­ci­sion to in­vade Iraq in 2003. The Amer­i­can peo­ple are un­der­stand­ably dis­in­clined to see more fa­tal­i­ties on that scale in a con­flict in which the in­ter­ests of the U.S. are not di­rectly threat­ened and in a re­gion where our pre­vi­ous ef­forts have been so dis­ap­point­ing.

Obama is right both to try to de­feat Is­lamic State and to do it with­out putting U.S. troops on the front lines. As he said in Septem­ber: “This is not our fight alone. Amer­i­can power can make a decisive dif­fer­ence, but we can­not do for Iraqis what they must do for them­selves, nor can we take the place of Arab part­ners in se­cur­ing their re­gion.” Noth­ing that has hap­pened since then has changed that fun­da­men­tal re­al­ity.

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