By Winston Shi
America is getting involved in a land war in Asia, and we’re arguing about semantics.
Yes. America is sending military forces to Syria. It may only be 50 troops, but it still deepens America’s presence in the region. And instead of questioning what impact these forces will have or whether they should be there in the first place, the controversy seems to be mainly about whether President Obama broke a promise. Something seems off here.
But for the sake of argument, let’s start off by confronting this argument on its own terms. Part of this is the President’s own fault. If you invoke the term “boots on the ground” as often as President Obama does, you had better face the music when you do put boots on the ground, albeit in the most limited possible sense of the term.
President Obama claims he has been consistent, and he has a strong case: We’re already in the war, and yet we’re not going to be committing troops to combat – although that is not to say that the advisors’ lives are not at risk. The U.S. started launching airstrikes in Syria over a year ago, so you can’t say that America wasn’t involved in the war before. But the American forces won’t be fighting on the front lines and wouldn’t make a difference if they could. The final withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011 was, by nearly universal agreement, the end of “boots on the ground” in Iraq, even though thousands of American defense contractors remained.
Nevertheless, the question isn’t whether President Obama’s put boots on the ground in Syria – the question is what impact boots on the ground will have. I brought up the Iraq withdrawal, but there is a difference between withdrawing troops while leaving residual advisors, and bringing in new advisors. This is a signal. This is a change to the status quo.
If sending troops to Syria is a signal, what does it tell us? What are its implications?
First, the signal is more important than the impact. The President says that the forces deployed to the region will “train, advise and assist.” But I doubt that American advice is going to turn the opposition forces into a fighting force capable of defeating both the Syrian government and ISIL. There’s not enough Americans and not nearly enough time.
Second, this decision is not necessarily going to lead to an escalation of American involvement. People often point out that Kennedy’s decision to send military advisors to South Vietnam was what got America into the Vietnam War in the first place. But people forget that even though America had committed advisors to the conflict, Kennedy’s decision did not compel Lyndon Johnson to put half a million ground troops in Vietnam. American forces could have been removed from Vietnam, and they can still be removed from Syria.
Third, sending military advisors shows everybody, both within the prewar borders of Syria and outside them, that America is still thinking about Syria – that it does not intend to hang Syrians out to dry. The people who are getting killed by the Assad government and ISIL may still think they are being hung out to dry, but at the very least, America isn’t trying to wash its hands of the crisis completely.
Fourth – and this is closely tied to the third point – sending troops to Syria is more about Russia than it is about Syria. Russia has been dictating the terms of the conflict in Syria for a long time now, and it already has 4,000 ostensibly noncombatant ground troops in Syria assisting the Assad government. Let’s remember that in any situation involving two major nuclear powers, the first country to commit combat troops will be the only country to do so. While sending advisors does not seize the initiative in this regard, at the very least, as long as both America and Russia are not fighting on the front lines, President Obama has restored a measure of equality to the situation in Syria. Regardless of whether America decides to resolve the conflict on the battlefield or the negotiating table, America is in a stronger position today than it was two weeks ago.
Even if no American forces ever appear on the front lines, sending American troops is an actual commitment. Russia’s efforts may not be helping Assad make territorial gains right now, but despite the consequent temptation to escalate, the presence of American troops will force Putin to think twice about sending in combat troops. Moreover, Russia will not launch any all-out air campaign against the opposition forces as long as doing so would run the risk of killing Americans. That’s the impact of the American presence. President Obama may disagree, but I would call this boots on the ground.
Final question – this one’s about the bigger picture. Does American interventionism have a future if we’re spending all our time trying to enforce promises instead of debating the actual merits of the actions the American government takes?
Right now, we’re mostly arguing about whether President Obama broke a promise to the American people. But when it comes to international and national security, you cannot hold President Obama to every single promise he makes.
There are just too many different variables for Americans to hold any President to his or her specific foreign policy promises. Things change, and the domestic political constraints on the White House change too. Just a few years ago, Congress stopped President Obama from having to enforce the red line he drew in Syria over the use of chemical weapons. Now, it doesn’t look like Congress is going to fight this decision in any meaningful way.
When it comes to foreign policy, you elect presidents based on the philosophy of American power they believe in, the guidelines they propose for the use of American force, and their ability to make rational decisions involving millions of lives. You don’t elect presidents because they promise that they won’t put boots on the ground. And I don’t blame President Obama for breaking his promise.
Ninety-nine years ago, Woodrow Wilson was reelected behind the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Six months later, America entered World War I, and few people thought that was a bad thing. We’re seeing the same thing in Syria. I may disagree with President Obama on a lot of things, but he’s the Commander-in-Chief, and while our leaders should be held accountable, the complaints are getting to the point where they’re wasting his time.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.