How exactly can a war-weary United States “do something” about ISIS and Ukraine?

Americans by our nature are easily given to outrage, anxious to stop invaders as well as to avenge atrocities. Standing idly on the sidelines is not our way. Recent barbaric acts committed by Islamic State extremists, including the beheadings of Westerners and the immolation in a cage of a Jordanian air force pilot, shocked the nation. Now we learn of the death of Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old American aid worker held hostage by ISIS since August 2013. This is exactly the kind of evil that triggers our desire to “do something.” That impulse has also led many in recent weeks to call on the United States to arm Ukraine against what is tantamount to a Russian invasion.

But what should we do? Exactly how do we “do something” in these two cases? The 12 continuous years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest period of conflict in American history, came at an extraordinary cost of lives, limbs, and treasure. As a result, Americans are extremely leery of putting “boots on the ground” anywhere new so soon. While there are more antiseptic forms of kinetic military action, such as the use of drones—which have been highly effective in taking out terrorists—and cruise missiles, experts tell us that there is a limit to what can be accomplished with weapons that kill our enemies without endangering American or allied lives. Strikes with manned aircraft can take things a bit further, but how far can and will our regional allies go without our troops beside them? The reality is that, in order to “do something,” it is sometimes necessary to send service members into harm’s way—whether that means relatively small special-operations units or larger battalions—something the American people appear to be quite reluctant to support after the nation’s recent traumatic experiences.(Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Realizing all of this, many suggest covert action—that is, arming local forces. But that may be easier said than done. Indeed, a CIA study reported on by Mark Mazzetti in The New York Times last year underscores just how difficult it can be: The study looked at the CIA’s 67-year history of dealing with insurgencies and, according to The Times,“concluded that many past attempts by the agency to arm foreign forces covertly had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict. They were even less effective, the report found, when the militias fought without any direct American support on the ground.” The Times piece went on to say that “one exception, the report found, was when the CIA helped arm and train mujahedeen rebels fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan during the 1980s, an operation that slowly bled the Soviet war effort and led to a full military withdrawal in 1989. The covert war was successful without CIA officers in Afghanistan, the report found, largely because there were Pakistani intelligence officers working with the rebels in Afghanistan.” The article also noted that the example served as something of a cautionary tale, as many of those mujahedeen later became the nucleus for al-Qaida and planned the September 11 attacks from Afghanistan.

As to the Ukraine, political scientist Ruth Deyermond, of King’s College in London, made this argument in The Guardian last year: “One of the most important things at stake for Russia in Ukraine is its sense of itself as one of the world’s great powers. Russia’s identity is tied up with the idea of its great-power status. With a narrow economic base, a declining population, and continuing security troubles inside its borders, it doesn’t look either as secure as other established, powerful states or as economically dynamic as the rising powers. As a result, its great power status rests on three things in particular: permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council; its nuclear arsenal; and its position as the dominant state in its region, that of the former Soviet Union.” Deyermond went on to suggest that “the George W. Bush administration’s push to have Georgia and the Ukraine admitted to NATO in 2008 posed a serious challenge to Russia’s position in the region and, from the perspective of the Russian government, to Russian state security.” Not to condone for a second Russia’s actions, but this reading—that Russia sees its former satellites gravitating closer to the West and perceives that as a threat—suggests we should be careful about directly poking the bear too much on this one.

The normal subject of this column is politics, and this is where the politics enter in. Any American president runs the risk of being seen as weak and dithering if there is hesitation or a decision not to use U.S. resources in such a fight. But, no matter how strongly Americans feel the urge to “do something” to stop ISIS or aid Ukraine, committing ground troops would be a very tough sell in 2015 and a politically dangerous one for both parties. The danger for President Obama and the Democrats is getting us into a new mess; the danger for Republicans pushing for greater involvement is that they become perceived as the War Party.

Just as the U.S. economy is really improving, foreign policy is increasingly threatening to have a major impact on U.S. politics and potentially send the 2016 elections on an unanticipated trajectory, with unknown results.

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