GOP's ground troops conundrum: As ISIS advances, how will Republican candidates (try) to thread the needle?

Republican presidential candidates haven't all committed to ground troops just yet. Because that's not easy

Published May 22, 2015 5:07PM (EDT)

  (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)
(AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

After a week or two of answering questions about the America's 2003 invasion and subsequent eight-year involvement in the ground war in Iraq, Republican presidential hopefuls want to turn towards the future of Iraq. Sure, "mistakes were made" in the build-up to and execution of the war, but let's focus on how Barack Obama lost the war and the entire Middle East forever by turning Iraq back over to the Iraqis and not occupying it permanently. Some would say that there's still a lot to gain from looking at past military mistakes in the region as we consider what to do next, especially when we're vetting a new cohort of presidential possibilities. But fine. Let's put retrospective hypotheticals on ice and look to future hypotheticals: what to do about ISIS?

The city of Ramadi fell to ISIS in Iraq last weekend in another instance of Iraq Security Forces putting up their arms and getting the hell out of town. The Islamic State is also on the move in Libya. Let's be pedantic and look backwards one more time: One lesson here might be that regime change, whether it's President Bush's Iraq war or President Obama's aerial campaign to assist in overthrowing Muammar Qaddafi, creates vacuums that well-organized jihadist militias are capable of occupying.

In terms of presidential politics, this is going to pressure the Republican primary field into an ever more hawkish direction. Sen. Lindsey Graham, the field's standard-bearer for more better military intervention at all times, is running around reiterating his call for the deployment of 10,000 American grounds troops to Iraq and Syria.

For people who are comfortable basing a decision on whether to deploy American ground troops into the awful Middle East on public opinion polls, there's space for this. An April CNN poll showed that 60 percent of Republican voters were in favor of deploying ground troops to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with 37 percent against.

For the most part, though, not too many of the candidates are committing to ground troops just yet after Ramadi. They're largely occupying safe territory: there need to be "boots on the ground," but not necessarily our boots. Rick Perry argues that we need "our allies' boots on the ground;" Rand Paul has called for "Arab boots on the ground" -- putting him in an unlikely agreement with Marco Rubio here. Rick Santorum hopes to "bomb [the Islamic State] back to the 7th century," a plan that's light on policy specifics.

What's strange about this "boots on the ground, but not our boots" position is that it's the same position as the Obama administration's. They act as though the Obama administration has been too shy to ask, or that regional nations don't have their own politics and interests at stake. Who is going to fight ISIS in the region? The groups that have been most active thus far have been Iraqi Shiite militias and the Iranian Quds Force, but we can't have that. Marco Rubio talks a good game about simply asking Sunni Arab nations to pick up the slack on the ground. But who? Saudi Arabia? They're concerned about ISIS activity in their own borders, but they're not going to deploy massive numbers of ground troops to Iraq to fight Sunnis or do anything that might help Iran, and Shiite militias in Iraq wouldn't exactly roll out the welcome mat for Saudi Arabia. This is not easy. Hence the current problems.

Our Sunni Arab partners, useful allies that they are, just want the United States to go in and do all the work ourselves -- and to do it absent any corroboration with Shiite militias in a way that might empower Iran's strength in the region. And so we get handcuffed situations like Ramadi, where the U.S. insists that the Iraqi army does the fighting, but then the Iraqi army just walks off the job, and then the Iraqi people get all mad at us and their prime minister for not turning to Shiite militias for help. There's no simple answer to this.

Unless you're former New York Governor George Pataki, who actually appears to be going through with his presidential run despite total lack of support or interest. Pataki has joined Graham in calling for ground troops:

Former New York Gov. George Pataki (R) said on Wednesday that he would support U.S. troops directly confronting Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants on the battlefield.

“I don’t want to see us put in a million soldiers, spend 10 years, a trillion dollars, trying to create a democracy where one hasn’t existed,” Pataki told hosts Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota on CNN’s “New Day.”

“But send in troops, destroy the training centers, destroy their recruitment centers, destroy the area where they are looking to plan to attack us here, and then get out,” said Pataki, a possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate.

“And leave a little note behind, ‘you come back, so will we,’” he added. “No 10-year war, no mass of casualties, but protect American lives before we get attacked here.”

Like Graham, he seems to think that a modest deployment is enough to get the job done against the Greatest Threat in the History of the Universe. But Graham doesn't put much emphasis on "getting out." Pataki's trying to thread the same needle that Ted Cruz is when it comes to military intervention: it's reasonable to send in troops, sure, but instead of them getting bogged down in "nation-building," just have them kill everyone really quickly and then get the hell out. (Pataki can take all the credit for that "leave a little note behind" flourish.)

The level of cynicism on display when they suggest how easy "getting out" would be is fascinating. They offer this suggestion in the same breath that they make their underlying political accusation: that the rise of ISIS is Obama's fault for "getting out" in the first place. It's very difficult to get out once you get in, and it's very difficult to rapidly "destroy" something so amorphous as ISIS, which isn't a nation-state so much as it's "disaffected Sunnis + guns." If you drop 10,000 American troops into ISIS and Syria, ISIS will at best continue to exist and at worst rapidly expand. The American people will want to get out, while military commanders will want to escalate. In sum: don't give us this "get out quickly" shit.

We'll see how long the rest of the field can hold out before calling for the deployment of American ground troops to fight ISIS. And if and when this does become the new consensus, we'll see how honestly they present their case to the public about what exactly we'd be committing ourselves to. Don't expect much.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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