Robert Gates: Destroying ISIS as Unrealistic as a Ground Invasion of Iraq

President Obama says he wants authorization for military action in Iraq but doesn't need it. Will there be a substantive debate in Congress?



Former Bush and Obama Secretary of Defense Robert Gates—who warned the U.S. against involving itself in another land war in Asia while still serving as defense secretary and has since then condemned U.S. interventionist foreign policy implemented under the liberal guise of the "responsibility to protect" or the conservative guise of "U.S. leadership—now says President Obama's goal to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is unrealistic.

The Hill reports:

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Sunday called President Obama's goal to destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) "unrealistic" and warned that ground troops may be needed to "roll back ISIS."

"I think that the air strikes have contributed to containing them, but we're a long way, in my view, from being in a position to roll them back or push them out of Iraq," Gates said on NBC'S "Meet the Press" referring to ISIS.

Gates, who served in the role under both Obama and former President George W. Bush, has repeatedly criticized Obama for ruling out ground forces in the fight against ISIS militants. He said Sunday that defeating ISIS without boots on the ground is an "unattainable objective."

"The notion of the alternative as being what we're doing now, and a reinvasion of Iraq, if you will, with large ground forces, is a false set of options," he said.

"It will be very difficult to roll ISIS back without forward air controllers and spotters, without embedded trainers." Gates added.

The U.S. started sending troops back into Iraq in the summer. Last November, President Obama sent 1,500 more troops to Iraq, doubling the number of military service members in the country. As is the norm for the wars after the wars of the 21st century, the U.S. says the troops in Iraq are in non-combat roles, working on training local forces.

The Obama administration has not been transparent about what the military is doing in Iraq. At this year's State of the Union, President Obama reiterated his desire for Congress to authorize military action in Iraq. Such authorization has not been forthcoming since Obama first mentioned it in November, yet it has had no effect on military action in Iraq, and Syria, which continued. Neither has the president offered a clear military strategy when addressing the ISIS conflict, saying only that the U.S.-led coalition is winning.

Last month, Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. was not making progress against ISIS in Syria because there were no boots on the ground, unlike in Iraq. The gaffe-prone Biden had hinted at the some of the same ideas presented by Gates—"boots on the ground" advancing the mission in Iraq and the lack thereof preventing the same in Syria.

In 2013, when the Obama administration was interested in conducting military operations against Syria over its chemical weapons program, the president said he'd seek congressional authorization—a departure from previous military forays—but continued to insist he didn't actually need it. It didn't look like the administration had the votes in Congress on military action in Syria, and eventually a diplomatic breakthrough made possible by Secretary of State John Kerry misspeaking led to Syria dismantling its chemical weapons without the U.S. taking military action.

Last year, the U.S. began conducting air strikes in Syria, against ISIS. The Syrian government has even said the U.S. informs them of strikes beforehand. The U.S. also appears to be backing off the demand that the dictator Bashar Assad step down as president of Syria in any peace deal.

President Obama won the 2008 election in part on a promise to end the war in Iraq and take the war in Afghanistan in a new direction. By 2012 he was campaigning on ending the war in Iraq, defeating Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, and bringing the war in Afghanistan to a close. Last year he distanced himself from his campaign claim that he ended the war in Iraq. Absent specific authorizations, the Obama administration places most U.S. military action around the world under the authority of the post-9/11 authorization of the use of military force. The president says he wants a new one.

If, not when, that debate gets to Congress, it's sure to split other than down party lines. The closer it gets to the next election cycle, the greater the opportunity for posturing on all sides. But the question of what shape military action in the "war on terror" ought to take after its first decade and a half is an important one. Twenty years ago many American politicians claimed "politics ends at the water's edge." No more. Two decades of failed interventionist policies has Americans seeking alternatives. As some members of Congress seek to reassert that body's role in U.S. war making and foreign policy, they'll likely give voice to those non-interventionist alternatives. As 2016 approaches, doing so could prove more and more value.