America's Goldilocks strategy

Story highlights

  • Aaron David Miller: Washington Post reported Tuesday that President Barack Obama is considering new steps in Iraq and Syria
  • These steps come on top of the President's decision to delay the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan
  • Miller: This is part of Obama's ongoing struggle to find happy medium between aggressive engagement and sitting on sidelines

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of "The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President." Follow him on Twitter @aarondmiller2. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)So much for the Extricator-in-Chief. The President whose foreign policy has been guided by a "Star Trek"-like prime directive -- Thou shalt get America out of costly and unwinnable wars -- is now considering steps to deepen U.S. involvement in those conflicts.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that President Barack Obama is considering new steps in Iraq and Syria largely designed to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. They reportedly include the option of deploying a small number of U.S. special forces to Syria -- on the surface a significant escalation -- and allowing those already deployed in Iraq to assume positions at the brigade level with Iraqi forces on the front lines, presumably as advisers and not in combat roles.
Aaron David Miller
These steps come on top of the President's decision to delay the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan (although it is also worth noting that the administration appears to have ruled out the idea of a serious no-fly zone to neutralize Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's air power, protect civilians or create a buffer zone as a safe haven for refugees or training opposition forces).
    So what's going on here? Is this an inevitable escalation of U.S. military activity that will see the United States engage in Iraq, and Afghanistan in a manner similar to Obama's predecessor? Is this finally the assertive foreign policy that the Republican presidential candidates (and Hillary Clinton) also want to see in Syria?
    Not so fast. Those who think this is Vietnam-style mission-creep should lay down and stay calm until the feeling passes. Instead, what you're seeing now is part of the ongoing struggle the Obama administration has faced for years -- trying find a balance between being all in, meaning thousands of U.S. ground forces and aggressively enforced no-fly zones, and being out and simply sitting on the sidelines like a potted plant.
    True, what's being contemplated now may boost local forces on the ground, particularly if they move to retake Ramadi in Iraq or seek to pressure ISIS in Raqqa in Syria. But it's not at all clear that the new U.S. moves will fundamentally change the battlefield balance, let alone set the stage for the sort of political fix required to stabilize the situation over time. And there are greater risks U.S. forces will be killed or captured, too.
    So why has the Obama administration decided to move, however carefully, now?
    The current escalation is largely driven by the reality that neither the campaign against ISIS, nor the putative effort to weaken the Assad regime, is going well. Of course, the campaign to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIS is a goal that is likely to take years -- if it can ever really be achieved or measured in terms of a conventional U.S. victory or defeat for the jihadis. But in the meantime, Russia's recent campaign to bolster Assad is working (although Syria may very well prove to be a trap for Vladimir Putin).
    In addition, the Syrian refugee crisis -- now a European catastrophe -- has only highlighted the inability of the United States and others in the international community to do much to shape events in Syria. This is in sharp contrast to Iran, Hezbollah and Russia, which have had a real impact on events on the ground, and in doing so have revealed to the rest of the world the uncomfortable fact that they are willing to invest men, treasure and credibility in pursuing a real strategy, namely keeping Assad afloat and preventing the United States from removing him by force.
    The other inconvenient truth is that all of these new military steps under consideration are really ideas in search of an effective strategy that the United States really doesn't have.
    Are we really trying to comprehensively defeat ISIS and check its advance in Iraq and Syria, or are we just pursuing a more limited counterterrorism strategy designed to take out leaders of jihadi groups planning attacks on the homeland? And are we seriously interested in weakening the Assad regime and checking Russian efforts to strengthen it, or are we waiting (and hoping) for some kind of Russian offer to negotiate a political transition and free the Obama administration from a mess -- at least as far as Assad's future is concerned -- for which we have no solutions?
    My colleague at Foreign Policy, Micah Zenko, has brilliantly told the story of U.S. mission-creep in Syria. But he still concludes that the Islamic State "has exactly the same fighting capabilities now as they did 14 months ago. If the size of an adversarial force you intend to 'ultimately destroy' remains static, despite more than 7,500 airstrikes, then it could be as much an indication of their success as it is yours."
    As for fundamentally altering U.S. strategy to weaken Assad, well that doesn't seem to be in the cards either -- largely because of Russia's new military commitment and the dangers of bringing down Assad only to see ISIS empowered and the jihadi black flag flying over Damascus. Yes, there has been some mission-creep on the U.S. side. But it is not the kind that is likely to see a fundamental change in the U.S. approach to Syria or Iraq.
    The reality is that this administration -- and I'd bet whoever takes over, Republican or Democrat -- is simply not prepared to invest the resources that would be necessary to defeat ISIS and replace Assad, let alone commit itself to another trillion dollar social science experiment to fix Syria as we "fixed" Iraq and Afghanistan. Not when the public and Congress, tired of the two longest wars in U.S. history, see so few tangible successes.
    So, perhaps understandably, the President is looking for an effective Goldilocks strategy -- not too hot and not too cold when it comes to Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But he's unlikely to find it. Military steps that might alter the battlefield balance (the deployment of thousands of ground forces, attacks against Assad regime leadership targets, aggressive no-fly zones) are seen as too risky. Cautious steps have the drawback that they won't really change anything.
    All this suggests that the United States is stuck. It can't transform the current situation in Iraq and Syria, but we can't leave, either. And so we wait. Doing what we can to kill the bad jihadis in Syria before they kill us at home, limiting ISIS gains in Iraq, even planning to help local Iraqi and Syrian forces to regain ground.
    And all the while the U.S. keeps probing Russia, and hoping that somehow Vladimir Putin will eventually be ready for a deal that eases Assad out of power and improves our position in yet another unwinnable American war.
    It's not much of a strategy. But don't expect a better one anytime soon.