As the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries struggle to put together a strategy to combat Isis the question arises, has the West lost the will to implement the Powell doctrine of overwhelming force and is it by default reverting to the Vietnam doctrine of escalation in steps, with the danger that the steps are not big enough or decisive enough?
The question matters because the decision to engage in military action In Iraq and (for the US) Syria has been characterised as much by what is ruled out as what is ruled in. Haunted by recent long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, both Britain and the US have emphasised at all times their unwillingness to put “boots on the ground”.
What does ruling out boots on the ground mean in practical terms? There should be little doubt that the leaders of both the US and UK would sanction special forces operations to hunt down the Isis killing squad who are beheading innocent hostages if they knew where they were. Those special forces would be wearing boots. And, for a time at least, they would be on the ground.
By talking about no boots on the ground our leaders don’t actually therefore mean no boots on the ground. They mean something that doesn’t look like an army as in the long and visible military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years.
But when we consider special forces, advisers and other means of co-ordinating military action from the air, and the imperative of stopping Isis establishing a caliphate, it is possible that these lines could become more blurred.
Philip Bobbit, the highly respected US author and academic wrote recently that ruling out boots on the ground was a necessary price for President Obama to pay to get approval for the action from the air that he sanctioned.
Perhaps, but two questions arise. First, will the line between what is actually happening and what has become ruled out become more blurred as the action escalates? And if it does, what questions will that raise about honesty and treating the public as adults? Secondly, if the goal is to do serious damage to Isis and impair its ability to act, does the politics of ruling out boots on the ground conflict with the action necessary to make this goal more achievable?
In other words, is war weariness pushing the West back into an unwitting adoption of the Vietnam doctrine of escalation by degree rather than Powell doctrine of using overwhelming force which replaced it?
This article first appeared in Labour Uncut on 7th October. http://labour-uncut.co.uk/