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When it comes to questions of America waging war, the conversation rarely gets past whether or not we should intervene. On the occasions that it does, it’s usually about how much we should, as if it’s a straight-line, single-dimension matter with appeasement on one end — followed by indifference, sanctions, drone strikes, and a limited air war — and a ground invasion on the other.
Stipulating that a political survey is probably not the best place to look for strategic insight, consider yesterday’s Pew Research Center poll showing that 63% of Americans now support the campaign against the Islamic State (up from 57% in October) and that support for a ground invasion has also increased to 47% (up from 39% in October). Among other questions, the poll also asked whether the greater danger is applying too little or too much force, and whether “overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world.”
Fine, but what does that actually mean? To delve into just one possible line of questioning, should our objective be to punish the Islamic State and deter those who would try again — whether with or without ground forces — or should we re-occupy the place and resume the Marshall Plan-like project President George W. Bush started? Put another way, is it in the United States’ interest to try to clean up the world’s messes after defeating belligerents, or is it sometimes best to adopt a “more rubble, less trouble” attitude that doesn’t obligate us to fix what we break? Which strategy would be best in the event of a nuclear Iran? Note that these are less questions of how much force to apply, but of what kind of force and to what ends (and even these questions are hardly exhaustive on those subjects).
As the presidential election revs up, the Republican candidates could do themselves and their nation a service by delving a little deeper into these questions than the media requires. Resolve and moral courage are prerequisites for effectively dealing with those who wish us and our allies harm — but they shouldn’t be the only ones.