U.S. boots on the ground against ISIS: President Obama and the Palin doctrine


Editor’s Note: The blog posts in this series are adapted versions of speakers’ opening remarks from the June 24th Brookings Debate, which asked: “Should the U.S. put boots on the ground to fight ISIS?”

On June 23, 2013, Sarah Palin was asked for her preferred solution to the Syrian civil war and she said “let Allah sort it out.” I call this view the Palin doctrine. By extension, those who oppose U.S. combat forces in Syria are adherents of the Palin doctrine. Palin doctrinaires would, to a certain degree, seem to include President Obama himself. The president clearly has not wanted to commit troops to Iraq or Syria and has done everything he can to avoid deploying them. But circumstances have forced him to take ever greater steps toward intervention.

Before we accept the Palin doctrine, we should understand why that is. The Palin doctrine is built on at least of one of two assumptions. The first possibility is the idea that we don’t actually have vital interests in the Middle East. But, it can’t be that. Everyone agrees that we do have vital interests in the Middle East. They are the same ones that we’ve been talking about for the last 20 years. We want to fight global terrorism; we want to prevent terrorist safe-havens; we want to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and we want to ensure the steady flow of oil at stable prices.

The second possible assumption is that, even though we have vital interests there, events are going to just sort themselves out in some way that is amenable to our interests. President Obama himself, as well as some of his senior officials, has suggested that this is the case and that sooner or later the Middle East is going to reach an equilibrium. The Saudis and the Iranians are going to cancel each other out. Hezbollah and al-Qaida are going to cancel each other out. The Islamic State (or ISIS) and the Iraqi state are going to cancel each other out.

But that idea is also clearly false. Since 2011, the situation has gone from bad to worse with very clear repercussions for U.S. interests. In Syria, we’ve seen more than 250,000 dead in Syria and more than half the population uprooted. Those displaced Syrians will never go back to their homes. Their refugee camps are going to be hotbeds of extremism for years or even decades. We have ISIS right at the center of the Arab world. We have a terrorist safe haven in Syria and Iraq.

Alienating our allies

And now, after nearly a year of U.S. military action against ISIS, we can see that the current strategy is not working, and it’s not going to work unless we take action on the ground. Nobody wants to have a massive U.S. intervention, another Bush-style 150,000 troop invasion as in Iraq. To prevent that, however, and to safeguard our vital interests we have to have allies who will help us with this task.

The need for allies highlights the most glaring flaw in the Palin doctrine. It alienates the very allies that we need to protect our interests. This is clear from the demographics. The population that ISIS is taking over in the area between Baghdad and Damascus is made up largely of Sunni Arabs. If we are going to defeat ISIS, we need allied forces on the ground that are capable of helping us take and hold territory. For that, we need Sunni allies.

To find those allies, we need to offer the local population the basic security that it needs in order to expel ISIS from the region. We have experience doing this from the surge in Iraq from 2007 to 2009. We learned that if we embed with the local population and provide security, it will help us against the extremists.

The problem is our posture in the region right now is alienating all of the Sunnis in the Middle East. They now believe that we are aligned with Iran. They believe this for many different reasons, but a critical factor is that in Iraq, we are currently serving as the air force for the Shiite militias run by Iran. Similarly, in Syria, we are pursuing a policy that focuses on Sunni extremists and refuses to take the fight to Assad.

Until we embed with Sunni forces on the ground, until we create a coalition of Sunni allies, and until we show the region that we are willing to join them in the fight, we will not get the allies that we need to defeat or degrade ISIS.