The “No Boots on the Ground” Mantra is Strategic Foolishness
President Barack Obama is fond of publicly declaring that there will be “no boots on the ground” when commenting on the Syria, Iraq, and Islamic State crises. Key national security lieutenants in his administration have loyally followed suit. Vice President Joe Biden has opined that the Islamic State, “can be routed by local forces without U.S. boots on the ground.” And Secretary of State John Kerry remarked at the NATO summit in Wales in regard to Iraq that “I think that’s a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground.”
One would have thought that given the administration’s strategic blunder in not enforcing its “red line” over the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, officials would be gun-shy about publicly using the term. Hold aside too, for the moment, the difficulty in reconciling the incremental dispatch of special operations forces to shore up Iraq’s rump Shia state with the administration’s “no boots on the ground” mantra. The number of special operations forces now in Iraq tally more than 1,000 soldiers by public accounts, and they presumably are wearing boots, not wingtips.
President Obama is falling back on his playbook from the Libya intervention, in which his administration famously “led from behind.” Obama in 2011 told the American people that “no boots were to be on the ground” in Libya. Coalition airpower proved enough to tip Qaddafi out of the halls of power and into the streets to be killed by a mob. Tragically, the coalition intervention in Libya was insufficient to stem the breakdown of civil order, the birth and expansion of Islamist militias, and the killing of Americans in the Benghazi consulate.
The Obama administration is following in the footsteps of President Bill Clinton who proclaimed the “no boots” mantra during the 1998-99 Kosovo war. Clinton, notorious for following the whims of public opinion, worried that American military intervention in the Balkans would not be popular. President Obama is doing the same today as Iraq breaks into three de facto states, the death toll in Syria hurtles toward 200,000, Christian minorities are threatened with extinction, and jihadists create a nation-state as a base of operations for global jihad in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.
President Obama, despite being praised for his charisma and eloquence, has never mastered the power of Teddy Roosevelt’s bully pulpit. Roosevelt, like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, exercised presidential leadership to pull public opinion toward national interests. President Richard Nixon did not conduct polling to find out if the opening of China was brilliant statecraft, nor did President George W. Bush defer to public opinion in making his courageous decision to surge forces into Iraq when things looked bleak in Baghdad. President Obama, in contrast, hides behind popular sentiment to escape the responsibilities and heavy burdens of the presidency. In fact, however, American public opinion is already shifting away from Obama’s isolation tendencies on its own. An August poll by the highly regarded Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans judge that President Obama is not tough enough on foreign affairs and national security.
The administration’s “no boots” mantra works against international security by telling adversaries and friends alike what the United States is not prepared to do. “No boots” declarations are akin to sitting down at a poker table and telling opponents around the table, “Hey guys, I’ve got no aces or face cards in my hand!” This principle, ludicrous at the poker table, is just as unlikely to yield success on the fields on which war is waged and peace is built, because it violates a common sense rule: Never tell adversaries what you are planning or not planning. Always keep them guessing, uncertain, insecure, anxious, hedging, and vulnerable.
President Clinton’s declarations that no American ground forces would wage war against Serbia over its atrocities in Kosovo gave President Slobodan Milosevic reassurance that he only had to ride out American airstrikes. Milosevic capitulated after his Russian friends warned him that British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was, arguably the most influential leader within NATO at the time, was pressing Clinton to up the ante with ground forces. Blair wisely worried that unless ground forces were in the strategic equation, the most successful alliance in history—as the West loudly boasted at the Cold War’s end—risked losing its first war against a fourth-rate power like Serbia, and would never to be taken seriously again, especially by the Russians.
President Obama’s “no boots” mantra today only gives the Islamic State encouragement. Its religious zealots see that the United States and its allies have no stomach for war even in the face of grievous humiliations—the downfall of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, the extermination of Christians, the murder of countless prisoners, gang rapes of enslaved women, and the decapitation of Western hostages. All of these horrendous deeds make the United States look weak and impotent. They earn the Islamic State a reputation for fear and power, giving it surges in new recruits from the West as well as from the Middle East who are clamoring for adventure, religious glorification, and, above all, the power to kill. As the old adage has it, nothing succeeds more than success, and the Islamic State so far has been allowed to play the winning part.
President Obama likely will come to rue his administration’s “no boots on the ground” mantra, much as he must privately regret his Syria “red line.” The Islamic State challenge will prove too formidable to pristinely “degrade and destroy” from the air—whether by fixed-wing aircraft or drones—as the administration hopes. And neighboring Arab states will need a reassuring American ground presence lest they buckle and collapse as Iraq’s military spectacularly did over the summer.
In strategic reality, the “no boots on the ground” mantra will likely increase the odds for eventually dispatching a larger American ground force, at greater costs and risks, and into what is now one Syria-Iraq theatre. Without the threat and use of significant ground forces on both sides of the former Syria-Iraq border—especially in Kurdish territory and in Jordan—the Islamic State will press its advantages, push into more power vacuums, and spread its rule by Sharia, fear, and terror into more territory.
Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest.