October 6, 2014 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Armed Forces, Terrorism, Syria

What's at Stake in U.S. Strategy in Syria

The Obama administration's strategy for Syria relies on using U.S. air power to support local forces. If this approach fails, as it has failed in the past, the United States will find itself still lacking an effective, politically viable strategy for fighting Islamist terror more than a decade after 9/11 attacks.

Since World War II, U.S. administrations have sought ways to fight our enemies without shedding American blood and spending American treasure. In the 1950s, after the Korean War, President Dwight Eisenhower wanted to rely on nuclear-armed bombers and local alliances to contain Communism.

A generation later, seeking to remove U.S. forces from Vietnam, President Richard Nixon said the United States would "look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense."

The Obama administration's approach in Syria looks a lot like President Bill Clinton's in Kosovo in 1999, or President George W. Bush administration's in Afghanistan after 9/11: U.S. bombs clear the way, while local forces -- improved by U.S. training and leadership -- do the fighting.

This strategy appeals because it is cheap and it keeps the war at arm's length. And if there's anywhere it can work, it's in Syria, where there are local forces (including the Kurds) we can support and the desert terrain makes it easier to spot targets.

Unfortunately, this strategy has failed to bring victory time and again. The reasons include:

War is not a targeting exercise. It is about using force to achieve political objectives. The United States bombed Moammar Gaddafi out of power in 2011, but it cannot bomb Libya into being well-governed.

Local forces are often far less effective than we hope. We've spent billions of dollars to build up the Iraqi army, yet its second division collapsed rapidly in Mosul in June.

Winning the battle is not the same thing as winning the war. After 9/11, we rapidly won the battle of Afghanistan. But 13 years later, we are close to losing the war, because we've been unable to secure the ground we liberated in 2001.

Unwillingness to put boots on the ground shows a lack of commitment. This gives adversaries confidence. The campaign in Kosovo dragged on in part because Clinton publicly ruled out using U.S. ground troops.

There are other challenges specific to Syria. The regional politics are so complicated and broken, it will be hard for the United States to make any strategy work, no matter who we support and what we bomb. Above all, Obama has undermined his own credibility in Syria by repeatedly stating that he wants to get the United States out of the wars of the Middle East.

While the omens are bad, Americans must hope the Obama strategy succeeds. The reason is simple. The Iraq War demonstrated again the truth that Eisenhower took from Korea: While American ground forces can beat their enemy, the American public is not willing to support a long ground war. That is tragic, but wise policy cannot be made by evading the truth.

The challenge confronting Eisenhower after Korea was to find a policy that promised victory at a lower cost. He faced that challenge head on. Obama, to his discredit, did not. After years of sweeping the Islamist problem under the rug, he has finally been forced by Syrian events to set out his strategy.

If it fails, the results in Syria will be tragic. But it also will leave the United States without a strategy in the War on Terror. If Bush's Iraq is politically unsustainable, and Obama's Syria is militarily unviable, we will be looking for answers again. Thirteen years after 9/11, that is a bad place for the United States to be.

 - Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in The Heritage Foundation's Thatcher Center for Freedom.

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally appeared in Newsday