War Stories

Fighting the Last War

Robert Kagan’s ideas for defeating ISIS and restoring world order are sheer fantasy. 

Protesters hold up an ISIS flag on July 18, 2014, in Srinagar, India.

Photo by Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In a long essay in this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal, noted neoconservative Robert Kagan calls for sending 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria—thus achieving the considerable feat of making Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is urging the deployment of 20,000 troops, seem dovish by comparison.

Kagan is not your typical neocon. An analyst at the centrist Brookings Institution (not the more hawkish American Enterprise Institute), a member of a storied family of military historians (father Donald, brother Fred, sister-in-law Kimberly), and a skilled writer (his 2003 book, Of Paradise and Power, was a best-seller), he stands to muster more influence than most advocates of his ilk. Certainly he makes a more lucid argument, so his argument deserves close rebuttal.

Some of his premises are valid. “The combined crises of Syria, Iraq, and the Islamic State,” he writes, “have not been contained.” The terrorist attack in Paris and the subsequent lockdown in Brussels suggest that ISIS “has now ceased to be a strictly Middle Eastern problem.” What was once a “peripheral” interest—degrading and defeating ISIS—“has now spilled over into the core.” As a result, the old cost-benefit calculations of what the United States should do—how much risk it should take, given the interests at stake—should be reassessed, since those interests have risen. Yet, as he quotes former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer as recently saying, America “is no longer willing—or able—to play its old role.” Meanwhile, the Europeans can’t do the job (“they failed to arm themselves for the jungle, materially and spiritually, and now … the jungle has entered the European garden,” Kagan writes), so America must step into the fray once more.

Essentially, Kagan is calling for a restoration of America’s “old role,” a resumption of its status and behavior as a superpower. And here is where his argument—founded on a long-bred reflex to go to war early in a crisis—falls apart.

He lays out a multipronged program. First, he writes, America must establish a “safe zone” in Syria. This would require not only U.S. air power “but ground troops numbering up to 30,000.” Second, he proposes “a further 10,000 to 20,000 U.S. troops”—or 40,000 to 50,000, in all—“to uproot [ISIS] from the haven it has created in Syria and to help local forces uproot it in Iraq.”

He suggests that this operation would not take much time. “Once the safe zone was established,” he writes in an assuring tone, “many of those [U.S.] troops could be replaced by forces from Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab states.” Similarly, many of the troops that had uprooted ISIS could be “replaced by NATO and other international forces to hold the territory and provide a safe zone for rebuilding the areas shattered by [ISIS’s] rule.”

This is sheer fantasy. If NATO and Arab forces are unwilling to rush in for the initial securing and uprooting, as Kagan contends, why would they be any more eager to step in when our troops tire? Wouldn’t our unilateral invasion (and that’s what it would be) prompt them to do what they’ve long tended to do—leave the dirty work to the Americans?

And, as Kagan comes close to acknowledging, even assuming that the safe zone keeps everyone safe and that ISIS truly is uprooted (very big assumptions), what remains would be dirty work. He writes that, simultaneous with the military operations, negotiations should begin on a “process of transition” that ousts Bashar al-Assad from Syria’s presidency, during which time an “international peacekeeping force—made up of French, Turkish, American, and other NATO forces as well as Arab troops—would have to remain in Syria until a reasonable level of stability, security and inter-sectarian trust was achieved.”

In other words, fighting would continue. This would not be a “peacekeeping” force, but a “peace-making” force—in other words, it would be a combat force. So why should these other nations, which have little desire to send troops now, do so at some future date, as long as the sectarian warfare continues, especially if the Americans are already in place?

Clearly, Kagan is trying to pre-empt objections that sending tens of thousands of American troops, as he proposes, would mean keeping them there for years, if not decades. But his answer—don’t worry, others will take their place—is unconvincing, on its own merits and by the logic of his argument.

Then comes a weaker argument still—that his proposal is no big deal. “At practically any other time in the last 70 years,” he writes, “the idea of dispatching even 50,000 troops to fight an organization of [ISIS’s] description would not have seemed too risky or too costly to most Americans.” In fact, it “would have seemed barely worth an argument.” After all, he writes, President George H.W. Bush sent a half-million troops to oust Iraq’s troops from Kuwait and 30,000 troops to remove a dictator from Panama. During the Cold War, presidents sent more than 300,000 troops to Korea, then more than 500,000 troops to Vietnam. But today, “Americans, or at least the intelligentsia and political class, remain traumatized by Iraq”—later he writes that they’re “paralyzed by Iraq”—“and all calculations about what to do in Syria have been driven by that trauma.”

But does this reticence stem from trauma—or from the lessons of history? It is astonishing that an analyst of Kagan’s caliber would cite Korea and Vietnam to make the case for a return to military adventurism. Yes, Harry Truman sent 300,000 troops to Korea—leaving 36,000 dead on the battlefield—but only to attain nothing better than a truce. Lyndon Johnson sent a half-million to Vietnam—58,000 killed in action—and not only lost the war but unleashed a generation of cynicism at home that persists today. As for the Gulf War, that was a conventional war on a desert battlefield (perhaps the last of its kind), joined by a multilateral coalition, fought not to rescue Kuwait but to prevent Saddam Hussein from expanding to the rest of the region. And by the way, the U.S. troops that lingered on Saudi soil incited Osama Bin Laden to declare his war on America. Panama was barely a war—it was a swift operation, fought in the Western Hemisphere, with the sole aim of arresting a single man, Manuel Noriega. (Fewer than 300 Americans were killed in the Gulf War, about 40 in Panama.)

As for the Iraq war, Kagan doesn’t delve into the reasons why Americans—“Republicans almost as much as Democrats,” he acknowledges—might have been left war-weary. George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq—which Kagan wholeheartedly supported—unleashed the volcano that still engulfs the region today: the sectarian strife and proxy wars between Shiites and Sunnis, the plunging of Iraq itself into a weak state with porous borders, the ensuing vacuums of power that left an opening for ISIS to fill.

Kagan chides Obama for declining to send troops to Syria on the grounds that they would only “put ‘a lid on things.’ ” Kagan claims, “Keeping a lid on things is exactly what the United States has done these past 70 years.” Yet in some of its recent interventions, which he would like Obama (or his successor) to emulate, the United States has in fact exploded lids—has unleashed chaos, or accelerated and intensified the chaos that was already unfolding.

Let’s say Obama did send 50,000 troops to Syria and Iraq, and let’s say that, in the short term, they did what Kagan wants them to do. Not even Kagan believes that the conflict would end quickly (hence his call for an international peacekeeping force). Just as ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003 didn’t bring rainbows to Iraq, pounding ISIS won’t end the strife in Syria. If American troops—and only American troops—come marauding into Syria and once again into Iraq, ISIS propagandists would have a field day, recruiting still more radicals to come seek martyrdom against the crusaders.

Kagan seems to think that the vast presence of U.S. troops would strengthen our hand and reduce Russian and Iranian leverage at the negotiations for a political transition to a post-Assad Syria. More likely (and, in any case, a possibility he doesn’t begin to consider), it would compel Russia and Iran to double down on their commitments. Certainly, it would make the regional powers—Sunni and Shiite—less willing, not more, to cooperate in forging a political settlement.

The title of Kagan’s essay is “The Crisis of World Order.” He describes his proposal for action as the only way of “preserving a liberal world order,” such as that which prevailed in the decades after World War II. But, as surely he must realize, this order has been fraying since the end of the Cold War—during which, for the first 45 of those 70 years that Kagan romanticizes, the two superpowers kept their power blocs in line, stretched or hammered most conflicts into the frames of the global East-West rivalry, and tried to suppress the odd rebellion that attempted to spin outside their orbits. Those orbits have long collapsed, and the challenge of diplomacy—especially for the United States, which is still looked at, if often resented or despised, for its leadership—is to maintain order, contain threats, and combat them when they get out of hand, while still pursuing national interests, in a world that spins largely without structure.

Military force has its role in this crisis, and, though Kagan is off-base in suggesting that Obama is doing nothing, the president and the other leaders in Europe and the region could do more. But sending anything like 50,000 American troops to Syria and Iraq would do little to solve the problem and, in the long run, will likely do more harm than good.