I spent a fair bit of time during the fall of 2014 boring the readers of this blog with my insistence that despite Obama’s “promise(s)” not to put “boots on the ground” in Syria, he would eventually find some disingenuous, incremental way of putting them there. Since “boots on the ground” doesn’t really mean anything, military speaking, the phrase is practically designed to guarantee plausible deniability: you can promise not to put “boots on the ground,” then send military personnel to the relevant place, and then deny that that’s what you meant by “boots on the ground.” No, no: “boots on the ground” referred, all along, to those military personnel that we haven’t (yet) sent, not the boot-wearing ones that now happen to be there.
I may be a newly-minted Democrat, but I’m not dumb, amnesiac, or loyal enough to our President to forget that this is just a tired variant on the semantic game that the Bush II Administration played with the phrase “weapons of mass destruction.” As we all by now know (or ought to know), very strictly speaking, weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq as a result of the 2003 invasion; it’s just that the WMD we found found bore no relation to the WMD that furnished the rationale for the invasion. So if the invasion of Iraq was predicated on “finding weapons of mass destruction,” very narrowly conceived, well, it was a great success: weapons were found. But this is just a pathetic way of saving a pathetic thesis. The war was predicated on finding usable stockpiles of WMD, and precisely none of those were found.
As for Obama, if by “boots on the ground” he meant large infantry divisions, then, yes, he’s “kept” his “promise” not to put “boots on the ground” in Syria. But if that’s what he meant, that’s what he should have said. It’s an act of deception to have used the phrase “boots on the ground” with mental reservations, denying that “boots on the ground” would be sent while knowing that troops of some kind would have to be sent. This is the kind of crap that gives casuistry a bad name, but it’s par for the course for our politicians, Republican and Democrat alike. And they wonder why voter participation is perpetually down. It’s like wondering why someone doesn’t fall for the same scam a dozen times in a row.
This piece in The New York Times lays it all out, but this sentence by itself tells the whole tale:
Even as Mr. Obama has repeatedly said that he opposes American “boots on the ground” in far-flung parts of the world, his administration continues to carve out exceptions for Special Operations forces — with American officials often resorting to linguistic contortions to mask the forces’ combat role.
This is Obama’s rationalization for those contortions:
“You know, when I said, ‘No boots on the ground,’ I think the American people understood generally that we’re not going to do an Iraq-style invasion of Iraq or Syria with battalions that are moving across the desert,” he said.
Actually, we didn’t generally understand that. What many of us did was to take at face value that “no boots on the ground” meant that no troops of any kind would be sent to Syria. Despite that, we also suspected–strongly suspected–that we were being lied to. The logic of Obama’s position necessitated that troops of some kind be sent to Syria. And the phrase he kept using to deny the need for troops, “boots on the ground,” was just vague enough to be used as an ex post facto rationalization for the deception he’s now offered. So at this point it’s a fait accompli: the troops are there, and any President, whether Obama himself, a hawkish Hillary Clinton, or a superhawkish Republican successor (Donald Trump? Ted Cruz?), has carte blanche to add to the ones that are.
It makes you wonder whether anyone in this country still remembers a place called Vietnam and a young, energetic president called John F. Kennedy (suspected, like Obama, of having dual loyalties to a “foreign” religion).* Here’s an item from–believe it or not–the national history standards for American high school students, grades 9-12.
In May 1961, JFK authorized sending an additional 500 Special Forces troops and military advisors to assist the pro-Western government of South Vietnam. By the end of 1962, there were approximately 11,000 military advisors in South Vietnam; that year, 53 military personnel had been killed. The president would soon send additional military advisors to support the South Vietnamese Army. By the end of 1963, the numbers had risen to 16,000.
I think you know what happens next. The point is not that Syria is Vietnam, or that what happened in Vietnam will of necessity happen in Syria (even if it kind of happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in less traumatic ways, in Libya and Lebanon). It may, but it may not. The point is that our political discourse doesn’t seem to rise to the level that we expect (or half-expect) of the country’s ninth graders. Our politicians and large swatches of the voting public (or at least the social media public) still seem to be mired somewhere in middle school, and threatening to stay there.
The difference is that most middle schoolers lack the power to send thousands of people to fight and die in faraway places, or to create howling desolation in the places themselves. It doesn’t seem to have penetrated the consciousness of the people of the United States that our Iraq war was instrumental in creating ISIS, so that a war started to fight ISIS might be predicted not to solve the problem we helped create, but to create some new ones to replace the old. (See this as well. And this. This adds some complications without changing the essential point.)
As for helping the refugees we helped create, Jordan and Turkey (two countries opposed to the Iraq war) are taking the brunt, alongside Europe, which also mostly opposed that war. Our contribution to the refugee crisis has been grudgingly to accept a tiny fraction of what they’ve accepted, temporarily forgetting the “Never, ever, again” blather we teach schoolchildren about the Jews and the Holocaust, and in some cases, refusing to accept or help the refugees that have been cleared for entry.
The deeper issue here is the connection between epistemology, language, and politics.** Democratic politics rests on discourse, and political discourse reflects conceptual-level thought. Introduce a thesaurus of nonsensical terminology into the discourse of a democratic country (“boots on the ground,” “carpet bomb them into oblivion,” etc.), normalize it, normalize habitual amnesia and habitual reliance on fallacies, and you short-circuit the possibility of rational thought. That’s where we seem to be in this country–a mindless, headless country armed to the teeth, and professing to “lead the world,” without quite being able to explain where. Call me “anti-American” if you want, but I can’t say that I’m eager to find out.***
*Or more recently, Donald Rumsfeld. Remember this gem?
I can’t tell you if the use of force in Iraq today will last five days, five weeks or five months, but it won’t last any longer than that.
**For an old classic on that topic, see Chris Sciabarra’s “Ayn Rand’s Critique of Ideology,” Reason Papers vol. 14 (Spring 1989), 13 page PDF.
***Postscript, January 3, 2016: So I write that last “anti-American” line, and two days later, a bunch of Americans in my neighborhood does something classically American: they welcome a few dozen Syrian refugees to their synagogue for a Christmas dinner of (kosher) Chinese food–catered for free by a kosher Asian restaurant from my childhood hometown. I wish I’d been there. (Why didn’t I hear about it? Because I was grading.)
Here’s a preview story from Montclair’s Patch. Here’s a report on the actual dinner from the Newark Star Ledger. Here’s a story from Baristanet with a nice photo of the event, with the added bonus of a pissed-off comment by yours truly in the combox, responding to a naysayer. And here’s a piece in The Montclair Times by Rabbi Elliot Tepperman of Bnai Keshet, who helped organize the event.
I previously encountered Rabbi Tepperman two years ago when he moderated and spoke at a panel discussion on the film “Under the Same Sun,” at the New Jersey Jewish Film Festival. Though I didn’t quite agree with the letter of his remarks (and don’t agree with the two-state solution endorsed by J Street, with which Tepperman is affiliated) I agreed with the spirit of what he said, and couldn’t help but be impressed at his probity, intelligence, and generosity of spirit.
Thanks to (Judge) Benjamin Richard Cohen for the tip.
Postscript, January 5, 2016: Here’s an interesting, generally well-argued article on the “boots on the ground” locution and phenomenon by James Traub, New York Times Magazine. Most of what Traub says strikes me as astute and undeniable, but there’s an unargued undercurrent to the piece that suggests–or insinuates–that military involvement in Syria and Iraq is somehow a regrettable necessity rather than something to be drastically ratcheted back, and (having done that) avoided at all costs in the future . This passage takes issue with the idea of military involvement:
George W. Bush didn’t need to talk about boots because Americans were prepared to put them on the ground to defeat Al Qaeda. Americans do not feel that way right now about ISIS, though another ISIS-inspired killing like the December attack in San Bernardino might quickly change that. Many Americans want to lash out at a hated foe — thus Cruz’s call for carpet-bombing — but they do not want to risk the consequences of war. Rarely has the discrepancy been so great between our eagerness to kill and our willingness to die.
I assume that Traub agrees that that’s an irrational predicament. But then I don’t know how to interpret this passage:
The new penchant for war without boots feeds a dangerous delusion, abetted by many of Obama’s Republican rivals, that the United States can smash its foes in the Middle East at the same time as it withdraws from the region and, in fact, from much of the world. America cannot retreat into its continental garden behind a hailstorm of precision-guided munitions. Whether they belong to soldiers, diplomats or development experts, the United States will have boots on the Middle Eastern ground for a long time to come.
No one thinks that a diplomatic presence in a foreign country has anything to do with “boots on the ground.” Even “development experts” is a stretch. The phrase is military in nature. The question is whether we’ll have soldiers of some kind abroad. Traub is right that we can’t smash our foes while withdrawing from the region. But is that a criticism of withdrawal or just a flat description of the trade-off involved? I don’t dispute the description of the trade-off, but would dispute the suggestion that we’re obliged to “smash” our “foes in the Middle East.”
Postscript, January 6, 2015: Derek Leebaert, author of a well-regarded book on military special operations, echoes my argument in a short letter today to The New York Times. That’s not intended as an appeal to authority, but as an entry in the “great minds think alike” department.