I have a question. Now that we're in, how do we get out?
We're there, on the ground, with troops committed, in the most violent sector on earth. Regional infighting reigns, factions have ramified, ancient religious hostilities thrive; all of which makes the Balkans, circa 1910, a relatively intelligible, straightforward problem — and Southeast Asia, a half-century later, child's play. One superpower was already sucked in — willingly — and now another joins the byzantine turmoil. Once joined, how to disengage?
Will it be 50 special-ops forces disengaging, whenever that day (year, decade) comes? Most unlikely. Yesterday, a Pentagon official "call[ed] the move a first step as officials continue to reevaluate the need for more special forces troops on the front lines." A first step, continuing reevaluations and the need for more troops, which hardly makes for a hanging mystery.
Could the defense official have been more explicit? He sure could: "You shouldn't rule out anything. We'll adjust once we get a better sense of who's on the ground, their capability and what's actually needed."
Ah, they'll adjust — Pentagonese for "escalate." They don't yet know "what's actually needed."
Let's dust off the ouija board: Are 50 U.S. troops in northeast Syria likely to act as an enormous magnet to ISIS, which is itching for a recruitment-lathered fight with the West's Satan? Strike that; there's no need to ask, for the defense official had some famous last words: "The area where we're planning to place [U.S. forces] is not an area [the Russians] have struck, nor would they need to strike. It's not ISIL and it's not regime-controlled, so we don't anticipate any problems." With the Russians, that is.
Yes, this operation should go as smoothly as did our mere advisory capacity in Vietnam. Well, sure, I mean, we did undergo the occasional "reevaluation" of what was "actually needed" there, which resulted, from time to time, in bits of force augmentation. But all in all, unanticipated problems never materialized. Why? Because that's war for you, war in a nutshell: Tomorrow is always discernible.
Of course sarcasm aside, to some degree, it is. The one absolute predicability of war is its utter unpredictability. That's a cliché, but a profoundly true one. Another knowable is that once you're in, it's nearly impossible to get out. The loss or imperilment of 50 calls for 100, 1,000 or 10,000 more — that, or turn tail and run, which can be politically lethal — which leads to even greater losses and greater imperilment.
I can't know the president's thinking behind his decision. I suspect he listened to one too many defense officials. But that he dispatched his press secretary to announce what the NYT correctly called a "huge shift" in his Syria strategy suggests the president himself doesn't quite know his thinking.
Whatever. My question to him remains: Now that we're in, how do we get out?
I'm reading various interpretations of why we're on the ground in Syria, which, when one stops to think about it, is rather offensive. Should 300 million Americans be left to speculate as to why we're there — presently at a numerical force of 50, which the Pentagon has virtually promised to escalate, and which American lives lost or captured would categorically guarantee? Should not the president — not a presidential spokesman — have stepped to the podium yesterday and made clear the reason for our ground intervention? Why is it that as the United States enters another Middle East war — a civil war, at that — the American people should be left wondering why? It's not rather offensive. It is offensive.
But more than that, far more than that, is that tendered speculations as to the reason or reasons we're there leave the above, fundamental, long-term and most disturbing question unaddressed: Now that we're in, how do we get out?
Barring some miraculous political resolution to the Assad-Syria-Saudi-Iran-ISIS-Kurd-Sunni-Shia conflict — which, if anywhere among the greater powers, lies in Putin's hands more than Obama's — just how is it we exit? What's the plan? — which, assuming there is one, will undergo a thousand mutations between now and said, elusive departure.