Tanks, troops and election campaigns: Which future American president is most likely to fight Daesh by land?

by Dano Brossmann, student of International Relations at King’s College London and Sciences Po Paris.

U.S. Army Capt. Thomas Melton, commander of Alpha Troop, 1st Squadron, 75th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division discusses the day's mission with his counterpart from the 4th Battalion, 1st Brigade, 6th Iraqi Army Division, in Bakariya, Iraq, on Dec. 4.

“If Iraq becomes the Islamic State, I will never again return to my home country,” are the words of a woman from Mosul, now living in London, who I have interviewed in summer. It was not so much her sanguine connection with the victims of Daesh’s brutal operations that kept my pressure high. Instead, I was shocked by the calamity with which she accepted the possibility that Daesh might win. In other words – preserve control over its territories and become a recognized member of the International System. Will next president shift this narrative?

Legally speaking, Daesh is far from getting recognized. Its land looks like an unassembled puzzle and the population is highly diverse. If national sovereignty is embedded in people, they firstly need to self-identify as one nation: a place where Iraqis and Syrians become, per se Daeshians, and inhabit solid territory with well-defined boarders. Thirdly, its brutal behaviour does not cast the light of legitimacy in the international environment.

Stephen Walt of Harvard sees it differently. Historically, revisionist “movements that were once beyond the pale,”[1] such as the Maoists in China, also acquired power violently. It took only a few decades before American presidents were shaking hands with China’s highest representatives.

Today Daesh is strong and brutal, perhaps less sophisticated than Hitler’s Germany, but still rightly to be compared with the Nazis. In Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, Daesh has forced Christians to leave and then redistributed their houses to the people moving in from villages. It has been using the wealth of others to fertilize its own popularity, and whether we want it or not, Daesh has been successful in doing so. As of today, the movement does not enjoy international recognition. On the other, it treats some of its people well and receives internal support.

Ground invasion – which future American president will go for it?

The use of force is a failure of diplomacy,”[2] repeats a professor of mine here at Sciences Po. Looking at the situation from distance, I see little diplomacy and some force – Air Force in particular. Are air strikes an effective way to fight Daesh?

According to Stephen Walt, planes are not enough, and in order to retake control of those territories “large scale intervention”[3] may be needed. It requires military activity of an Arab coalition, as well as US leadership. In other words, it requires putting boots on the ground, including Americans.

In early September, America had 3,550 of its personnel providing advice to the Iraqi army[4]. Donald Trump is determined to increase this number by sending troops into oil-rich areas of Iraq and then use the profits for treatment of American veterans.

What are the positions of other potential presidents?

090521-N-8907D-127 NEW YORK (May 21, 2009) Donald Trump, Chairman and CEO of the Trump Organization, tours the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) during Fleet Week New York City 2009. Approximately 3,000 Sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsman will participate in the 22nd commemoration of Fleet Week New York. The event will provide the citizens of New York City and surrounding tri-state area an opportunity to meet service members and also see the latest capabilities of today's maritime services. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class David Danals/Released)

Irreplaceable America and the militaristic guy – defining Bush and Trump

During a speech in California this August, [5] Jeb Bush proposed a realpolitik foreign policy plan in which a clear hegemonic vision remained. In his words, “the threat of ISIS requires all the strength, unity and confidence that only American leadership can provide.” Specifically, he plans to expand supplies to the Kurds and the Iraqi army, who have “the will but not the means to fight.”

Other than Mr Trump, Bush is probably the closest to a ground invasion. Mr Bush argues there is neither need, nor request for “a major commitment.” Surprisingly enough, the former Florida governor does consider this situation may change.

Donald Trump is a simple man. He enjoys talking the talk, but will he walk the walk once he gets in power?

Mr Trump is determined to cut the source of Daesh’s income, its oil in particular, even at the cost of sending troops to fight on land. “You have to put the boots on the ground,” if you want to knock out the source of their wealth, he argued on the American programme, Morning Joe. Once Americans succeed in guarding the oilfields, “nobody is going to take it back.”

It is very questionable whether Trump’s formulations reflect what he actually thinks or serve to gain him publicity. Most would wish the latter, but understanding this experienced businessman’s true intentions is always difficult. His words therefore cannot be taken too seriously.

Diplomatic language and war as the last resort – Clinton’s approach and Sanders’ position

Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has been quite neutral and diplomatic with respect to taking a specific approach against Daesh. Her words certainly cannot be labelled “militaristic,” neither has she publicly spoken of America’s involvement in ground operation.

According to past formulations, fighting the militants “has to be an Iraqi-led mission,” [6] in which the USA only assists. She is committed to supporting actions to weaken Daesh and protect sexually abused women who are being enslaved by the group.

Clinton is rather careful when talking about foreign policy, given that as former Secretary of State, she carries a large responsibility for the first Obama administration. Foreign policy expressions of any kind can be easily used against her campaign.   

Bernie Sanders has called for greater involvement of regional powers, mainly Saudis and Emiratis, who are in close geographical proximity. He also agrees with Obama’s bombing operation, as well rephrases him that American troops should not be sent to Iraq and Syria.

“Before you go to war,”[7] what you sometimes have to do is “explore every other option,”[8] said Sanders in an interview with Vox. War, as the very last option, is not only about the dead but also about the many soldiers who return home with “post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury,” thinks the Democratic candidate. Sanders may be seen as a pacifist, but he is not. These expressions reflect he is well aware of warfare lethality but at the same time leaves doors open for a possible involvement.

The legitimacy of time

Daesh is gaining both hearts and minds of many people now living under its rule. Despite its brutality, the new ruler pays pensions on time, runs hospitals and builds roads. Although it sounds absurd, life in Mosul, one of the most dangerous cities of post-2003 Iraq has for many become more secure and normal than before. At least for those, who were not kicked out, killed or disappeared.

Given America’s negative experience with ground invasion to Iraq, few candidates are willing to act on the issue. If we were to mark the probability of involvement based on previous statements, Mr Trump would take the action in first place. He would be followed by Mr Bush, with Mrs Clinton taking the least likely at ground action.  

[1] Walt S., „What Should We Do if the Islamic State Wins?“, Foreign Policy, 10 June 2015

[2] Ronald Hatto, Strategic Studies class, Sciences Po Paris

[3] Walt S., „What Should We Do if the Islamic State Wins?“, Foreign Policy, 10 June 2015

[4] Binnie J., Ing D., Wasserbly D., „US expands Iraqi re-train/equip programme into illy pad strategy“, IHS Jane’s 360, 12 June 2015

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4pnnR9adWU4

[6] Goldberg J., „Hilary Clinton: Failure to Help Syrian Refugees Led to the Rise of ISIS“, The Atlantic, 10 August, 2014

[7] Klein E., „Bernie Sanders, The Vox Conversation“, The Atlantic, 28 July 2015

[8] Klein E., „Bernie Sanders, The Vox Conversation“, The Atlantic, 28 July 2015

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