When President Obama first let it be known that he had decided to unleash war — oops, sorry, I mean "a campaign" — against ISIS, I had two main concerns. My first worry was mission creep, which is what happens when the U.S. commits to a small war that slowly balloons into a big one; like when a few hundred "advisors" to Vietnam turned into hundreds of thousands of soldiers. And my second worry concerned the further normalization of the war on terror, as two successive presidents defend and embrace a global struggle without end.
In my worst-case scenario, some catalyzing event, like the death of an American pilot or an ISIS attack on U.S. interests, would galvanize the public into supporting a more comprehensive strategy, one that featured the deployment of American troops. Told by their political leaders not only that ISIS was an existential threat, but that the U.S. military was capable of destroying it if it really wanted, voters would gravitate toward pundits and politicians who told them a quick and decisive victory was attainable, if only Washington would truly commit. Voters would agree, and suddenly we'd have to experience what a quagmire in the Middle East is like all over again.
As things stand today, it's too soon to declare myself the new Nostradamus (or even Quasimoto). But if you take a look at a brand new poll, things don't look good.
A new poll from Fox News, reported on by the Washington Post, offers real cause for agita. The headline result, which WaPo implies is proof that "Americans are ready to go to war," is that 53 percent of voters say they'd support sending troops to fight ISIS "if airstrikes aren’t enough." Only 41 percent disagree (while a scant 6 percent went with ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). The results of the poll's follow-up question may have been even worse: 58 percent believe troops will be necessary to "defeat" ISIS. Most voters, in other words, are OK with sending in troops, and believe it'll ultimately be necessary.
To be clear, I'm not saying we should treat this single poll's results as definitive. For one thing, despite the networks emphasis that the poll was conducted by a Republican and a Democrat, it's still from Fox News. (As question number 22, asking if Obama has been "too tough or not tough enough on radical Muslim extremists," reminds us.) Other polls have shown Americans far more reticent to deploy troops. Perhaps more importantly, the wording of a polling question can make all the difference in the world, and both of these prompts from Fox are structured in a way that probably made these hawkish results more likely, if not inevitable.
But if you're opposed to sending troops to Syria and Iraq, I wouldn't counsel relaxing just yet. It's true that the Fox News wording makes a belligerent political atmosphere more likely. But that doesn't run counter to my initial worry — in fact, it's more or less the point. Notice how both questions in the poll fundamentally assume that ISIS is a problem the U.S. military can solve. There's no question of whether it's even possible for the U.S. to "defeat" ISIS. In fact, there's not even a clear definition of what defeating ISIS would even mean.
I'm guessing most Americans imagine annihilation when they hear the word "defeat." But it's worth noting that when he talks about his plan to "degrade and destroy" ISIS, the president is not. And that, ultimately, gets to the heart of why the campaign against ISIS remains so worrying, and why Obama's depiction of it when he's speaking to the nation at large is still so reckless. As the Daily Beast's Michael Tomasky argued weeks ago (while calling on the president to intervene), and as Obama himself has explained when speaking with journalists or experts, destroying ISIS is well outside U.S. capacity. It's something people in the region will ultimately have to do for themselves.
To avoid being sucked into another doomed invasion and all-out war, that's something Americans should've understood from the beginning. It's something the president should have told them. He didn't; they don't; and the new poll from Fox may be just the beginning.