In “The Cost of War” Mr. Blow says Americans must think about what it means to engage in another foreign war, and weigh that against the urgent needs we have at home. Mr. Kristof offers a “Critique From an Obama Fan” and says the president is right to expand the attack on ISIS into Syria if it’s done prudently with modest goals. In “A Man With a Plan” Ms. Collins says President Obama makes a comeback from weeks in which he was attacked for everything from playing golf to saying “we don’t have a strategy yet.” Here’s Mr. Blow:
Here we go again.
Wednesday night, during a prime-time speech, the president laid out his plan for dealing with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS.
He made clear that “while we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland,” he still “will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq.”
He called it “a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy” and not a war. Yet, for all practical purposes, a war seems to be what it will be.
And most Americans, before the speech, seemed to be on board if not leading the way.
According to a Washington Post/ABC News poll published Tuesday, a vast majority of Americans see ISIS as a threat to the United States, a slight majority believe the president hasn’t moved aggressively enough, and most support expanding United States airstrikes into Syria.
But I implore the president and the nation to proceed with caution.
We can kill anti-American fighters and even their leaders, but we can’t kill anti-American sentiment. To some degree, every time we commit our forces in the Middle East we run the risk of further inflaming that sentiment.
For every action, there is a reaction. And there are also consequences, some of them unintended.
The president said that his plan “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” But this seems a hard thing to completely guarantee. It seems reasonable to worry that it could lead to at least some American boots on the ground and some American blood soaked into it.
The president did, however, say:
“We will send an additional 475 service members to Iraq. As I have said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”
But missions creep, wars get foggy and the very definition of victory can become elusive.
And need I remind you, we’ve been here before, worked up into a patriotic tizzy, fears stoked and muscles flexed. Although nothing may soon rival the staggering deception and disaster of the Iraq war, it still stands as our most recent and most instructive lesson about committing to armed conflict. George Bush and Dick Cheney are in a category of their own.
When we invaded Iraq in 2003, about three out of four Americans approved of President Bush’s handling of the situation, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. Three years later, that approval had fallen by half.
We don’t want to look back three years from now and ask, “What have we done?”
An ABC News poll in early March of 2003 found that most Americans believed the Iraq war would last several months at most — it officially lasted nearly nine years — and nearly eight in 10 thought Iraq posed a direct threat to the United States at the time.
And the cost of that war, particularly in death toll, was staggering.
According to the website Iraqbodycount.org, more than 4,800 members of United States and coalition forces were killed between 2003 and 2013, as well as 468 contractors.
An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted the month we invaded found that nearly seven in 10 Americans thought the final result of the Iraq war would be that we would “win,” whatever that meant. Most Americans also thought that we should do everything we could to minimize Iraqi civilian casualties.
And while it is not clear how many civilian deaths resulted solely from United States military action in that country, Iraqbodycount.org puts the total number of Iraqi civilian deaths “from violence” since 2003 as high as 144,000.
Furthermore, a March 2013 study estimated that the financial cost of the Iraq war could be more than $2 trillion.
And now, to compound the waste of money, with our air offensive we are essentially paying to blow up millions of dollars of our own equipment that we left behind in Iraq, as Jason Fields wrote for Reuters last month.
As Fields puts it:
“And Islamic State’s captured an enormous amount of U.S. weaponry, originally intended for the rebuilt Iraqi Army. You know — the one that collapsed in terror in front of the Islamic State, back when they were just ISIL? The ones who dropped their uniforms, and rifles and ran away? They left behind the bigger equipment, too, including M1 Abrams tanks (about $6 million each), 52 M198 howitzer cannons ($527,337), and MRAPs (about $1 million) similar to the ones in use in Ferguson.”
“Now, U.S. warplanes are flying sorties, at a cost somewhere between $22,000 to $30,000 per hour for the F-16s, to drop bombs that cost at least $20,000 each, to destroy this captured equipment. That means if an F-16 were to take off from Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey and fly two hours to Erbil, Iraq, and successfully drop both of its bombs on one target each, it costs the United States somewhere between $84,000 to $104,000 for the sortie and destroys a minimum of $1 million and a maximum of $12 million in U.S.-made equipment.”
We are doing this at a time when many of our roads and bridges are crumbling beneath us. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that we need to invest $3.6 trillion in infrastructure by 2020.
The Department of Agriculture released a report this month saying that the percentage of Americans who are “food insecure” (lacking “access to enough food for an active, healthy life”) has remained relatively unchanged (14.3 percent) since the numbers spiked during the recession in 2008.
And yet, in February, the 2014 Farm Bill was signed into law, a bill that will, according to MSNBC, “cut $8.7 billion in food stamp benefits over the next 10 years, causing 850,000 households to lose an average of $90 per month.”
We are still arguing about the cost of the Affordable Care Act and Republicans are still wasting time and money trying to repeal it.
We, as Americans, must think long and hard about what it will really mean for us to engage in another foreign war and weigh that against the urgent needs we have right here at home.
Next up we have Mr. Kristof:
I’m probably one of the few Americans left with some sympathy for President Obama’s foreign policy, and even I have to admit that his Syria policy has been a mess.
His “red line” about chemical weapons turned out to be more like a penciled suggestion. His rejection of the proposal by Hillary Rodham Clinton and David Petraeus to arm moderate Syrian factions tragically empowered both the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Dismissing ISIS as a “J.V. team,” as Obama did in January, was silly — compounded by the White House’s contorted attempts to deny that he had said that. Obama’s ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, resigned this year because he found our government’s policy impossible to defend.
The tragedy in Syria isn’t Obama’s fault, but that of Syrians; still, the president has been painfully passive toward what has unfolded: the deaths of nearly 200,000 Syrians, the destabilization of neighboring countries by three million refugees, the near collapse of Iraq, the beheading of two American journalists, mass atrocities against Yazidi and Christian religious minorities and growing risks of ISIS terrorism against American and European targets.
And, yes, that’s the judgment of an Obama fan.
So it’s just as well that the president is trying for a reset — oops, wrong word — let’s just say “a new strategy” in Syria.
“America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” Obama declared in his speech Wednesday night. He described it as a “counterterrorism campaign” that would “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.
There’s some inconsistency there. Counterterrorism is the right prism through which to approach this, rather than all-out war, but it’s unlikely to destroy ISIS any more than it did the Taliban or militancy in Yemen.
Indeed, the president, in his speech, said that his strategy in Syria “is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” That’s a plausible comparison, but Obama may be the only person in the world who would cite conflict-torn Yemen and Somalia as triumphs.
Unfortunately, there are more problems than solutions in international relations, and calls for more aggressive action by some Republican critics could make things worse. Dick Cheney has compiled an almost perfect record of being wrong on foreign affairs, so, on Wednesday, when he called for the United States to be more aggressive and get “back on offense,” we should all insist upon caution.
My take is that Obama is right to expand military action against ISIS into Syria if it’s done prudently with modest goals of containing and degrading a terror group. ISIS is a proper target, having butchered Americans, dismembered Iraq and attempted genocide against minorities like the Yazidis.
A 17-year-old Yazidi girl told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica in a phone call that she was being kept by ISIS as a sex slave along with many others. The newspaper got her cellphone number from her parents, who are in a refugee camp.
“They treat us as if we are their slaves,” the newspaper quoted the girl as saying. “The men hit us and threaten us when we try to resist. Often I wish that they would beat me so severely that I would die.”
ISIS also could pose a terror threat within the United States. At least 100 and perhaps many more Americans have traveled to Syria to join jihadi groups, and some could return to carry out attacks.
So striking ISIS in Syria makes sense, but we also have to recognize that airstrikes will be of limited benefit and carry real risks as well.
“We’re going to war because we’ve been spooked,” notes Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “But if we do it wrong, we could ensure that the violence spreads.”
One danger is that if our bombs kill innocents, ISIS would use its video-making and social media skills to galvanize the Sunni Islam world, saying the American “infidels” who are slaughtering Sunni children must be punished. That’s why it’s crucial to have Sunni partners, including United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
We also need a partner on the ground to take advantage of airstrikes and seize back territory. That means moderate Syrian rebels, but there are many fewer of them now than there were two years ago. The middle has been vanishing.
Bolstering the Syrian opposition is still worth trying, and a senior administration official says that the White House will try to expand support. But there’s a danger that more arms will lead not to the destruction of ISIS but to the creation of another Somalia.
So let’s move ahead with eyes wide open. We’ve seen the perils of Obama’s inaction, and let’s now avoid the perils of excessive action.
And now here’s Ms. Collins:
It’s a tough time to be a concerned citizen. The truth of the matter is, the job has always been messy.
But it’s way worse when the subject is foreign policy.
We gathered around our TVs and computers and peered at our smartphones Wednesday night to hear President Obama explain his plan for combating ISIS, even though we have pretty much lost faith in plans when it comes to the United States involvement in the Middle East.
He sounded very strong. And, really, that’s something. We’d have been happy to come away just saying something like “he appeared to believe he’s on the right track.”
The problem with the substance was that when it comes to Iraq and Syria, we’re too good at imagining the downside. The president said he had waited to launch his plan until Iraq got an inclusive government. That certainly made sense. Except that we have children entering middle school who had not been born when we started waiting for Iraq to get an inclusive government.
Then there’s the arming of Syrian rebels. No surprise that Obama wants an ally that isn’t the Assad regime. But some of the fighters in ISIS were Syrian rebels. Obviously, the administration feels its rebels are not going to become anti-Western terrorists. But the anti-Western terrorists in ISIS are waving around a ton of our weaponry that they took from the allies we armed in Iraq. Just saying.
Obama promised no American combat troops would be sent into battle. We don’t want boots on the ground. The idea of airstrikes sound much safer. Unless you happen to be an innocent civilian in the vicinity.
The president assured the American people that the strategy of air power plus “support for partner forces” would work because it’s already been a big success in Yemen and Somalia. Concerned citizens then turned to each other and said: “Yemen and Somalia?”
The hardest thing for average Americans is knowing just how worried to be. The tone of alarm in Washington has been hyper-shrill. Denouncing the president’s failure to take on ISIS faster, Representative Michele Bachmann told The Huffington Post: “We haven’t seen anything like this since Hitler and the blitzkrieg in World War II.”
Well, Michele Bachmann. Who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee.
During the run-up to the speech, Republicans had been irate about the president’s failure to act sooner, explain his plan faster and, in general, be tougher. Never had so many people demanded specifics without ever offering any of their own.
“President Obama’s chronic passivity has helped the jihadists,” John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Senate Republican, said in a floor speech this week. Cornyn slammed the administration’s “don’t do stupid stuff” mantra, claiming Obama “doesn’t seem to fully grasp the magnitude of the threats and challenges that America is now dealing with.”
Cornyn mixed up Iranians and Iraqis a few times, but concerned citizens understand that these things get complicated. More to the point, not doing something stupid is actually a super foreign policy goal. Just look back on our recent history of meddling in the Middle East and what do you see? A heck of a lot of stupid stuff we wish we hadn’t done.
In his speech, the president was pushing back after weeks in which he was attacked for everything from playing golf on his vacation to saying “we don’t have a strategy yet” on the ISIS surge in Syria. On that, the critics had a point. You’re not supposed to say you don’t have a strategy. Even when everything on the ground has shifted and you need to consult your allies, get the Iraqi government to reorganize and collect new intelligence. You still don’t say “no strategy.” You say, “I’ll discuss strategy after I brief the congressional leaders.” And then fail to invite them.
Anyway, now there’s definitely a strategy. The hawks in Congress were not all necessarily overwhelmed. “The president doesn’t really have a grasp of how serious the threat of ISIS is,” said Senator John McCain on CNN. Other Republicans, like House Speaker John Boehner, issued responses that began with, “Finally …”
And how about the concerned citizens? We’re feeling insecure. It’s comforting to have Dick Cheney around, so we can at least know what we definitely want to avoid. This week, in a Washington speech, the former vice president said Obama has to “understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win,” and spend way more money on defense.
Which means that:
A) Fighting ISIS is going to be more complicated than just war.
B) The president should put timetables on everything.
C) The defense budget needs to go down.
Remember that no matter what else happens, Dick Cheney will never steer us right.