The great leaders in American history learned from the mistakes of the past. It’s something we ought to remember when it comes to sending ground troops to eradicate the Islamic State group.
After the failed isolationist policies of the early 20th century, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman spent billions of dollars to rebuild America’s adversaries and deepen international cooperation after the Second World War.
After more than a decade of escalating force deployments in Vietnam and unsuccessful counterinsurgency efforts, President Ronald Reagan withdrew American ground forces from what looked like a new Vietnam — the disintegrating country of Lebanon in the early 1980s.
Roosevelt, Truman and Reagan were tough, but they were also strategic. They were honest in assessing past failures and determined to implement better alternatives, with realistic plans for success.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has pursued a policy of direct military intervention throughout the Middle East. We have deployed hundreds of thousands of service members to the region and spent more than a trillion dollars on military and development assistance. American forces have successfully overturned three regimes — in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
President Barack Obama has called for another regime change in Syria. The United States has also deployed the most sophisticated unmanned aerial bombers (“drones”) ever used to strike thousands of targets — often assassinating terrorists in their hideouts. U.S. Special Forces have entered the region repeatedly to capture and kill threatening figures, most famously al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in 2011.
These costly actions have failed to make the United States safer. And that is exactly why sending ground troops to eradicate ISIS is not something we should do.
President George W. Bush promised to “win” what he called the “Global War on Terror,” but when he left office in 2009, Afghanistan and Iraq remained violent nests for terrorist groups. Obama initially increased American forces in Afghanistan, and he escalated the use of drone strikes. Seven years later, the terrorists continue to dominate much of the Middle East and Central Asia.
These regions have consistently become more violent, unstable and dangerous with every deployment of American forces from 2001 to 2015. Our military interventions have destroyed old sources of stability, empowered new radicals, inspired followers for them, and provided high-value American targets in easy reach.
Our military has proved that it can defeat any other regular army, but it is poorly suited to fight highly organized and ideological insurgencies in a region filled with popular distrust of the United States.
There are simply too many local sources of support for the terrorists who seek to kill our service members, and the presence of U.S. ground troops only increases local terrorist sympathies.
Training regional forces to fight on our behalf has not worked either. We have invested money and personnel throughout Afghanistan and the Middle East, yet our surrogates seem to melt away when the first terrorists arrive.
Our trainees want our money, but they do not want to fight the homegrown insurgents. In many cases, they have joined the other side, turning the weapons we supplied against us. Our local training has increased regional disorder and the terrorist threat, and it has depleted our treasury.
These are the historical facts. We can argue about the causes for American military failures since 2001, but we must admit to them if we are going to improve current policy.
After the horrible recent attacks by the Islamic State and other terrorists, we simply cannot afford to repeat another decade of counterproductive war in the Middle East. Tough talk about sending American troops back to the region is irresponsible unless it is accompanied by a persuasive explanation of why this time will be different.
The challenge for American leaders is to create new policy alternatives that include various military and nonmilitary tools. That is what Roosevelt, Truman and Reagan did during their presidencies.
Isolating and defeating the terrorists is necessary, and it requires careful steps, not a rush to fan the flames of a rising fire. We have already burned ourselves badly in a decade of overzealous activity.
Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including “Liberty’s Surest Guardian: American Nation-Building from the Founders to Obama.”
This op-ed was published as part of point counter-point series in the Orlando Sentinel.
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