The Obama Doctrine: Mission Creep

New troops for Iraq and Syria show Vietnam-era incrementalism is back

by Aaron Stanley | Updated 30 Oct 2015 at 5:03 AM

After nearly seven years of mystery, an “Obama Doctrine” for foreign policy has finally been uncovered.

Unfortunately, it’s not novel, but a revival of an earlier idea: Add power incrementally to the fight, forget about objectives or strategy, ensure the enemy matches you, and victory is never achieved.

Known as “mission creep” or “incrementalism,” Obama demonstrated the policy this week by sending more U.S. troops into parts of Iraq and Syria as the next phase of gradually growing effort to slow down the expansion of ISIS. The role of the military also has been changing, from one that eschewed “boots on the ground” to direct engagement — so far by special forces — with the enemy in pitched firefights.

Mission Creep was invented during the Vietnam War — unsurprisingly, the first war America lost — during which the United States spent several years ramping up its commitment to South Vietnam and then several ratcheting it back down. The result? People desperately clinging to boats and helicopters trying to escape, and a South and North Vietnam united under communism.

This policy was supposed to be thrown to the ash heap of history and replaced what was known as the “Powell Doctrine,” named for Gen. Colin Powell, which said that America would only enter wars it intended to fight with overwhelming force and win.

But this was simple for the complex mind of Barack Obama, who had already withdrawn U.S. troops from Iraq but didn’t like the result.

In June 2014, it became painfully obvious that the Iraq withdrawal of 2011 had spawned an even greater enemy when ISIS stormed onto the scene and captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and commenced a fierce push towards Baghdad.

Confronted with an enormous threat, but unwilling to enter another war, the U.S. response was to do the bare minimum and hope the problem went away. But the threat from ISIS has only expanded as the Islamists have taken new territory, attracted recruits in droves from the West, and beheaded captives on YouTube.

Each ISIS advance has been met tit for tat with an incremental response from the U.S — not with the goal of destroying it, but to prevent it from growing larger.

To date, Operation Inherent Resolve has brought an initial deployment of 270 military “advisers” to Iraq to help protect U.S. personnel; a limited operation against ISIS terrorists who had besieged the Yazidi people on a mountaintop; 3,000 troops sent to train Iraqi and Kurdish security forces; a campaign to arm Syrian rebels to fight ISIS; 7,323 total airstrikes; and what amounts to random airdrops of ammunition bundles over Syria.

Earlier in October, the White House was forced to admit the plan to arm, equip and train so-called “moderate” rebel factions in Syria was a spectacular, $500-million failure, as many of the recruits defected and handed over their weapons to the Islamists.

“Mission creep has occurred because Obama continues to pursue a strategic objective that is totally unachievable,” wrote Micah Zenkho of the Council on Foreign Relations. “The United States …simply will not commit the degree of military power needed to ensure that Assad falls or the Islamic State is destroyed.”

Even the normal Obama backers in the press are objecting to the approach.

Even the normal Obama backers in the press are objecting to the approach.

“By incrementally increasing its combat role in a vast, complicated battleground, the United States is being sucked into a new Middle East war,” a New York Times editorial said Wednesday.

The U.S. doctrine of incrementalism extends well beyond just Syria. Earlier in October, Obama reversed course by deciding to keep nearly 10,000 American troops in Afghanistan to help quell a fresh insurgency by the Taliban and to better train the woeful Afghan security forces.

Three hundred U.S. troops were also recently deployed to Cameroon in West Africa to help fight Boko Haram, and ongoing, secretive drone wars have killed at least 3,236 people in Pakistan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen since 2009.

Part of the problem is that because our enemies are taking different shapes and forms, the line between traditional war and counterterrorism efforts has been blurred. However, if we learned anything from our experience in Vietnam, it’s that wars must be fought to ultimately destroy the bad guys and not just make their lives difficult.

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