2003 Iraq invasion looms large in presidential politics, ISIS strategy

The looming 2016 elections are creating a rhetorical stalemate, preventing presidential aspirants from articulating anything resembling specificity with regards to ISIS.

A US Army Soldier assists a member of the Iraqi army to transport an Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breach System at Besmaya Range Complex, Iraq, Nov. 10, 2015.

SALT LAKE CITY, Nov. 18, 2015 – The world may be looking to the U.S. and a newly elected president next year for leadership in the fight against ISIS.

It’s not coming any time soon.

In a radio interview after the Paris terrorist attacks last week, Republican candidate for president Jeb Bush said that ISIS’ rise and strength were directly attributable to the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq four years ago.

That seems to be the prevailing Republican wisdom: ISIS developed in the vacuum left when President Obama decided to not leave a residual force in Iraq.

Martin O’Malley, vying for the Democratic nomination for president, has suggested that it was the invasion of Iraq and the immediate disbanding of the Iraqi Army in 2003 that eventually led to ISIS.

Read Also: Paris attacks reveal deadly ISIS strategy shift

That seems to be the prevailing Democratic wisdom, though for reasons having to do with her 2002 vote to invade, frontrunner Hillary Clinton has offered a different explanation. (This summer she attributed ISIS to the U.S. failure to arm Syrian rebels).

Explanations, unsurprisingly, divide along partisan lines.

So what do those alternating explanations offer in terms of a policy to deal with ISIS? In neither case can we put the genie back in the bottle. If the Republicans are to be believed, the residual force can’t likely go back in. There just isn’t enough political will in the United States to return ground troops  to Iraq.

But the Democratic explanation forecloses that possibility even more definitively. If the initial invasion led to ISIS, then future invasions couldn’t possibly fare any better.

Yet both sides want an aggressive American response. Even Bernie Sanders concedes that the United States should have some role in building a military coalition to take on ISIS. Since ground troops are out of the question for the left, presumably he means a force composed of U.S. logistics and supply elements combined with air support, and ground forces from neighboring Arab states. Of course, neither he nor his fellow candidates for the Democratic nomination have offered anything quite as specific.

Republicans vary in their willingness to commit ground troops. On one end is Sen. Rand Paul and the wing of the party that doesn’t want any more Middle East adventures. On the other is Sen. Lindsey Graham, who would send 10,000 fighting troops as part of a regional force.

Read Also: GOP Debates: Candidates now caving to the mainstream media?

But in between are more non-committals. It’s not lack of clear thinking or strategy that has most presidential contenders hedging. It’s the specter of 2003.

Republicans are afraid to say that the invasion a dozen years ago was worth it, so they don’t go back that far. They rest on the idea that the war was won by 2010.

Democrats ignore that fact and harp on the 2003 invasion as a disaster.

It’s a rhetorical stalemate, and it won’t convince a soul.

But it will prevent presidential aspirants from articulating anything resembling specificity with regards to ISIS.

So the world will have to wait.

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