Ross Douthat comments on the ever-expanding war on ISIS:
And I wouldn’t blame war-skeptics who listened to the president outline a more open-ended campaign last night for feeling some vindication at how swiftly this war’s aims have expanded.
Well, I was one of those skeptics, but there’s no feeling of vindication. It is all so depressingly predictable and familiar, and I would have been thrilled to be proven wrong about this. Unfortunately, things have proceeded more or less as I expected they would when the bombing started a month ago:
These airstrikes are at best a stop-gap measure to slow the advance of ISIS’s forces, and to the extent that they are effective they will likely become an ongoing commitment that the U.S. won’t be able to end for the foreseeable future. Administration officials claim that there is no plan for a “sustained” campaign, but now that airstrikes have begun it will be only a matter of time before there are demands for escalation and deeper involvement, and sooner or later I expect that Obama would yield to those demands. Having made the initial commitment and having accepted that the U.S. has a significant military role in Iraq’s internal conflicts, the U.S. will be expected to continue its commitment for as long as ISIS exists, and that will leave the U.S. policing the Iraqi civil war for months and years to come.
Admittedly, I didn’t think that the war would be expanded to Syria so quickly, but that was bound to happen once Obama committed to the goal of “ultimately destroying” ISIS. What I don’t understand is why anyone ever believed that U.S. goals weren’t going to expand significantly after the bombing that began last month. Skeptics were right about this, but it was almost certain to happen, so why weren’t more people just as skeptical as we were? More to the point, why wasn’t the likelihood of an expanding, open-ended war enough reason to reject the original intervention as the mistake that it was?
Escalation was always very likely, because that has been the pattern in U.S. interventions over the last twenty-five years. Obama already demonstrated in Libya that the U.S. would go far beyond the original stated goals of an intervention, and he is now on record saying that his greatest regret about the Libyan war was that the U.S. didn’t follow it up with a post-war military presence. That should be something to bear in mind when you next hear Obama pledge that there won’t be any American ground forces in combat in this new war. That’s why we should have expected this from Obama, but what made escalation even more likely is that our current political culture and foreign policy debate don’t really permit the U.S. to limit itself to small, achievable goals when it uses force overseas. That is especially true once administration officials irresponsibly stoke public fear about a group being an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” Sooner or later, the mismatch between the administration’s alarmist rhetoric and the initial “limited” action was going to be fixed by adopting a more aggressive policy.
If an intervention succeeds in its initial goals, the U.S. typically doesn’t stop there. Instead, the U.S. is encouraged by its early success and adds new goals. Soon enough, the U.S. is pursuing maximalist ends without having considered how to reach them or whether they can even be reached. Then again, if an intervention fails early on or incurs higher-than-expected costs, there is still enormous resistance in Washington to cutting American losses and calling off the mission, because to do so would signal “weakness” and harm our “credibility.” This is why it is unwise to take military action unless it is strictly necessary, no matter how small or limited it may appear to be initially, because the pressures for escalation will be great and usually overwhelming.