A Jordanian, 21 Egyptians and 4 Americans – sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it is not.
They, along with thousands of others, have been murdered by the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh) in the Middle East, and by Boko Haram in Nigeria. The victims are Muslim, Christian (Nigerian Christians, Egyptian Copts beheaded in Libya, plus Yazidis, Chaldeans and 45 members of smaller sects in Iraq burned alive), and others (Japanese hostages and some who professed no religion). They are killed in places where governments have lost control of their territory to bands of increasingly well-armed Islamic radical forces.
There is a war going on in a far part of the world, and increasingly IS finds fellow travelers -- thus far in France, Britain and Denmark -- willing to attack in the West. The U.S. has had citizens killed at home -- kudos to Congress for finally making it possible for the Army to award Purple Hearts to the casualties of the jihadi attack at Ft. Hood -- but a connection to IS is not established.
The Obama administration, which has said it would "degrade and destroy" IS, has put forward two documents to help explain America's strategic posture toward organizations wedded to "violence against unbelievers" and the insufficiently enthusiastic.
First came the "Authorization for the Use of Military Force" (AUMF), then a new "National Security Strategy" (NSS).
But there is more.
The AUMF is an odd document, not yet debated in Congress. Among other points, it prohibits "enduring offensive ground operations," but without defining them. The language suggests the U.S. would remain committed only to air strikes, training and Special Operations. Ground troops, however, are often essential in warfare across wide-open spaces such as the western Iraqi desert. Kurdish Peshmerga were on the ground in the battle for Kobane, but Kurdish forces are limited and remain in their own areas, and have not been equipped. Beyond them, there are no trained and ready troops except, perhaps, Iranian or Hezbollah, both of which have acknowledged having forces in Iraq. Neither should make Iraqis, or Americans, comfortable, especially in light of Iran's desire to spread extremist Shi'ite, Persian control over the Middle East to restore the Persian Empire.
To complicate matters, the AUMF has broad exceptions to its prohibition on "enduring ground offensive operations." The current 3,000 ground troops in Iraq are explicitly excluded from any new restrictions. In addition, according to at least one report, Special Operations forces; Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, the experts who pinpoint targets for air strikes; and search and rescue personnel can be deployed by the President without returning to Congress for an amended authorization. Together, they could amount to thousands more troops.
Those who believe that an American-led ground war in the Middle East is necessary call the AUMF too rigid and limited; others fear it has the potential for an expanded war, to which they object.
Appearing to weigh in on the side of those who do not want the U.S. committed to large-scale military operations against IS, the NSS counsels "strategic patience." National Security Council Advisor Susan Rice explained, "We are committed to seizing the future that lies beyond the crisis of the day [emphasis added], and pursuing a vision of the world as it can and should be." She added that the U.S. will "look at the world with a long-term perspective, influencing the trajectory of major shifts in the security landscape today in order to secure our national interests in the future."
There is no way to take such pronouncements as "the future that lies beyond the crisis of the day" or "visions" seriously as policy-making tools. How does a government get "beyond the crisis" without a plan to resolve the crisis? Regardless of the "long term perspective," which the administration has committed to paper, the "crisis of the day" appears to be what she is, in fact, talking about. And the "crisis of the day" appears to require ground troops.
While the administration was saying it had not identified "moderates" to receive American arms, the CIA, it turns out, had trained more than 5,000 Syrian rebels. Maybe they were not really "moderate." That would account for why thousands of them appear to have defected to IS at the end of last year. While others continue to arm and train Syrians, one quarter of the U.S.-approved brigades have since been dropped from the list of "acceptable" militias, and money for others has been cut.
You can trust American troops, though, right? Now, some 4,000 members of the American 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 4th Infantry Division from Ft. Carson are being dispatched to Kuwait where they will be the first heavy brigade to fight in Iraq if that becomes the Commander in Chief's decision.
Yes, 3,000 already in Iraq and another 4,000 in Kuwait would amount to 7,000 pairs of "boots on the ground." The 3rd Brigade Combat Team, which was deployed to Iraq four times, is equipped with tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles. For more than a year, its soldiers have trained primarily in armored combat skills, applied in ground battles against an opposing army. From a military perspective, this is appropriate as certain combat skills have been degraded or lost in the past decade of mostly small-unit urban warfare or anti-terrorist operations.
But the AUMF specifically prohibited "enduring offensive ground operations."
Keep this in mind because the letter sent by President Obama to lawmakers with the AUMF said, "Local forces, rather than U.S. military forces" should be used for large-scale operations. "The authorization I propose would provide the flexibility to conduct ground combat operations in other, more limited circumstances, such as rescue operations involving U.S. or coalition personnel or the use of special operations forces to take military action against (Islamic State) leadership."
Rescue operations rarely require tanks, and Special Operations never do.
The 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division conducts a fire coordination exercise with Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles at Fort Carson, Colorado, in September 2014. (Image source: 3rd Brigade Combat Team Facebook Page)
President Obama seems to want it both ways -- to oppose American participation in large-scale battles in Iraq but to have the "flexibility" to order them; to prohibit ground operations but to have American troops in place to carry them out.
The administration thus appears to remain without an articulated strategy to prosecute the war IS has launched against us, our allies and a broad range of civilian non-combatants. It remains to be seen whether the President is posing as the sleeping giant of American military might, or whether he is truly on a quest for the "future that lies beyond the crisis of the day" and his "vision of the world as it can and should be."