It's been an entire 12 years since we started a war, and apparently the American people are getting a little antsy. A new Quinnipiac poll finds that 62 percent of Americans, including 72 percent of Republicans, favors the use of ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We should be careful about over-interpreting that, because the question was preceded by another question talking about limited, but not long-term operations for ground troops. But there's no doubt that the public's interest in getting some boots back on the ground is gaining momentum; in Pew polls, support for ground troops went up from 39 percent in October to 47 percent in February; in the same poll, 67 percent of Republicans said they supported ground troops.
The reason I focus on the number of Republicans is that I suspect with this increase in support from their constituents, we're going to hear more and more Republican politicians coming out for what we might call a re-invasion of Iraq, and not just Iraq but Syria, as well. And as long as we're in the neighborhood, how about some military action against Iran?
Iran is, of course, a separate story. But it isn't unrelated; once people start advocating a third Iraq war with more vigor than they have been up until now, the idea of bombing Iran won't seem so outlandish. Back in 2002, when the Bush administration was in the midst of its campaign to convince the public that invading Iraq was necessary lest we all be obliterated by Saddam Hussein's fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, a British official described the sentiment among the Bush administration and its allies this way: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."
It wasn't long ago that the idea of sending ground troops back to the Middle East was widely considered just short of insane. After all, we'd finally gotten out of Iraq, after spending $2 trillion, losing 4,000 American lives, and sending the region into chaos. Why would we want to do it all over again? But now, the idea of doing it all over again seems to be gaining traction.
Just after the end of the first Iraq war, George H. W. Bush closed a celebratory speech by saying: "It's a proud day for America. And, by God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." That syndrome was the reluctance of the public (and military leaders) to countenance enormous military adventures in far-off lands in service of vaguely defined goals. So it may now be time to say that the "Iraq syndrome" is dead, if ever it existed.
At the moment, when the Republicans running for president are asked about whether they'd like to send troops to any of these countries, they inevitably reply that "all options should be on the table." It's essentially a dodge, though not a completely unreasonable one. They want to signal to conservatives that they're ready to use force, but signal to everyone else that they're not eager to do so. But try to imagine what would happen if a Republican wins the presidency next year.
If ISIS isn't completely defeated, he'll be under pressure from his supporters to go in there and get the job done, and not in a wimpy way like Obama. Then think about Iran. With Bibi Netanyahu writing their talking points, Republicans will now insist that any nuclear agreement negotiated by this president is by definition weak and dangerous. The very fact of an agreement limiting Iran's nuclear activities can be the justification for military action. If the talks break down, on the other hand, well that just makes starting a bombing campaign all the more urgent. And of course, they'll assure us that once we take out the Iranian nuclear program, the people will rise up and overthrow their oppressive government.
It's all going to sound quite familiar. War will once again be presented as the only way to prevent a bigger, worse war that they insist is coming no matter what. Don't forget that the Iraq War was offered up by the Bush administration as a pre-emptive strike to prevent the inevitable and not-too-distant moment when Saddam Hussein would launch his war against the United States. While they never said whether the Iraq invasion would come by land, sea, or air, the attack was coming one way or another. In Dick Cheney's immortal words: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."
Netanyahu says that the Iranian regime is just a bunch of homicidal lunatics who are determined to re-enact the Holocaust. There's no use negotiating with them, because they're mad. War is the only way to solve the problem. Anyone who saw the way Republicans were like tweens at a One Direction concert at Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday know that if he says it, they'll believe it.
So here's what I think is going to happen. First, the idea that we need to put troops in to fight ISIS—not on the table, but on the ground—is very quickly going to become something that all Republicans agree on (and if you're going to do it, do it big—no half-assed mobilization of a few thousand, but a massive deployment). Then they'll start talking seriously about military action against Iran, sooner rather than later, and that too is going to move rapidly from being a fringe idea, to something that many of them admit should be "on the table," to something they all agree ought to be done. And by God, we'll have kicked that Iraq syndrome once and for all.