Mis­sion creeps

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - By Jed Bab­bin

The only rea­son a na­tion would in­ter­vene in a war in which it isn’t a pri­mary bel­liger­ent is to change the likely out­come. Rus­sia and Iran in­ter­vened in Syria to save the As­sad regime from de­struc­tion.

The same is true for any ter­ror­ist net­work. Hezbol­lah’s de­ci­sion to send hun­dreds of its ter­ror­ist troops to Syria, on Iran’s or­ders, is no sur­prise.

But what is Pres­i­dent Obama’s rea­son to send fewer than 50 spe­cial op­er­a­tions troops into Syria? In the con­text of that con­flict, his rea­son can­not be that they will change the out­come, oust­ing either Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad or the Is­lamic State, far less both.

The con­text — the facts on the ground — was much sim­pler when Mr. Obama threat­ened Mr. As­sad, draw­ing his ris­i­ble “red line” against fur­ther chem­i­cal at­tacks on Syr­i­ans. Now, Rus­sian com­bat air­craft are at­tack­ing Mr. As­sad’s en­e­mies. Troops from the Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps are fight­ing his en­e­mies as well, joined by the Hezbol­lah fight­ers.

This is no proxy war. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin didn’t bother to send the “lit­tle green men” — Rus­sian troops in uni­form but with­out flags or Rus­sian iden­ti­fi­ca­tion — like he did in con­quer­ing the Crimean Penin­sula. Rus­sian pi­lots are man­ning their air­craft. Ira­ni­ans are on the bat­tle­field in their own uni­forms.

And who are they fight­ing? The Rus­sian and Ira­nian forces are do­ing bat­tle with the same forces that our “fewer than 50” spe­cial op­er­a­tions troops are sup­posed to be train­ing.

Time and force are two of the pri­mary vari­ables in war. Sun Tzu de­scribed it in about 2300 B.C. Nathan Bed­ford For­rest summed it up when he said the pre­scrip­tion for vic­tory is to get there “firstest with the most men.” It has been three years from the time Mr. Obama de­clared a “red line” against Mr. As­sad’s use of chem­i­cal weapons.

In 2012, long be­fore the Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans in­ter­vened openly to de­fend Mr. As­sad, we could have taken ac­tion to re­move him. Now, Mr. Obama has taken ac­tion that is too lit­tle and too late.

What dif­fer­ence will those troops make? Not much. With Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans — and Hezbol­lah ter­ror­ists — at­tack­ing the peo­ple we are sup­posed to be train­ing, our troops will ac­com­plish noth­ing that will change the course of the Syr­ian con­flict. The fact that Rus­sian air­craft are at­tack­ing the same forces we are try­ing to as­sist could have been pre­vented, but Mr. Obama chose not to do so. When the Rus­sians told us to not vi­o­late “their” airspace, Mr. Obama agreed to “de­con­flict­ing” our op­er­a­tions with theirs. In short, the Rus­sians de­clared a “no-fly zone” for U.S. air­craft, and Mr. Obama agreed.

Mr. Obama knows our few spe­cial op­er­a­tions troops won’t af­fect the out­come of the war. The Pen­tagon knows that. So what are they try­ing to do?

Let’s be­gin with what Mr. Obama’s de­ci­sion is not. It’s not what the me­dia call “mis­sion creep,” a term that came out of the Viet­nam War. It’s an ac­cusatory term mean­ing that po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary lead­ers are covertly ex­pand­ing our goals in the war as an ex­cuse to en­gage more and more Amer­i­can forces. In the Viet­nam War, we be­gan with Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy or­der­ing a few troops in to train the South Viet­namese. Soon af­ter, Pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son or­dered a mas­sive in­crease in ground troops, naval forces and air power, tak­ing over the war from the South Viet­namese. That ex­pe­ri­ence de­fined mis­sion creep.

Mr. Obama said that we would de­grade and then de­stroy ISIS, but his ac­tions have never in­di­cated that the goal was to de­stroy ISIS. Our cam­paign of air strikes in Iraq have not driven ISIS out of its stronghold­s in key Iraqi and Syr­ian ci­ties. We’ve not pro­vided Kur­dish forces with the arms they’ve begged for in their fight against ISIS.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, who would have us be­lieve that this is not a change in Mr. Obama’s anti-ISIS strat­egy, is cor­rect in a per­fectly per­verse way. What Mr. Obama is do­ing is a sort of “mis­sion creep” but with a dif­fer­ent aim than ex­pand­ing the war. His aim is to af­fect the 2016 elec­tion, not the out­come of the war in Syria.

To fur­ther that goal, diplo­mats are meet­ing to dis­cuss a so­lu­tion to the Syr­ian war. Not only are the Rus­sians and some of the Euro­pean gov­ern­ments that par­tic­i­pated in ne­go­ti­at­ing the nu­clear weapons deal with Iran par­tic­i­pat­ing, but so is Iran it­self. Iran has, by Mr. Obama’s agree­ment, been given le­git­i­macy in all fu­ture ne­go­ti­a­tions on the Mid­dle East.

Mr. Obama’s mis­sion for our forces is not to win the war, or even af­fect its out­come. The mis­sion is to make the White House ap­pear as if it’s tak­ing ef­fec­tive ac­tion in Syria as it says it has in Iraq.

Our troops will be ex­posed to Rus­sian air at­tack and ground at­tack by Iran and its Hezbol­lah al­lies. Some will be killed, and some will be in­jured. They aren’t, we’re as­sured, in a com­bat role. But if you’re get­ting bombed, strafed and at­tacked by ground troops, it would be hard to con­vince you that you’re not in com­bat.

The Oct. 22 death in Iraq of Delta Force op­er­a­tor Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler hap­pened only eight days be­fore Pres­i­dent Obama or­dered the fewer than 50 spe­cial forces troops to Syria. We have boots on the ground fight­ing and dy­ing in Iraq again. The mis­sion creeps are in com­mand, with­out a thought of how we might win the war. All we can be sure of is that Mr. Obama is try­ing to pro­tect his legacy from the blame that will come from de­feat. Jed Bab­bin served as a deputy un­der­sec­re­tary of de­fense in the Ge­orge H.W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. He is a se­nior fel­low of the Lon­don Cen­ter for Pol­icy Re­search and the author of five books in­clud­ing “In the Words of Our En­e­mies.”


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