President Obama clings to air power

President Obama clings to air power
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President Obama is solidifying his legacy as the air war president with his strategy for taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The escalated use of airstrikes in Iraq and potentially Syria is just the latest example of the president finding it strategically and politically expedient to choose missiles over manpower when fighting enemies abroad.


For years, Obama has used drone strikes conducted from afar to desiccate al Qaeda leadership in Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. Air power was also central to the U.S.-led NATO campaign that ousted former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadafi in 2011.

Fighting from the skies has two major advantages for the president.

Tactically, by ruling out ground troops, he considerably decreases the risk to U.S. personnel and the overall costs of prosecuting the war against terror networks. 

Politically, he keeps in line with the public mood, with polls showing consistently that Americans are far more likely to back airstrikes than putting troops in harm’s way.

The premise of a bloodless war has also tempered criticism from the anti-war forces on the left that hounded the George W. Bush administration.

Yet even as the decision to rely heavily on airstrikes appears to be calming the political waters, critics warn that Obama's refusal to put boots on the ground comes with risks.

Former National Security Agency Director and Retired Air Force General Michael Hayden equated a reliance on airpower to "casual sex." 

“It’s some sort of gratification without the commitment," he told The Hill in an interview Friday. 

Ruling out boots on the ground — even U.S. advisers that could direct airstrikes to make sure they are precise and appropriately used — is a mistake that renders the U.S. less effective, Hayden said. 

Other experts are skeptical that Iraqis or moderate Syrians can mount an effective opposition to a well-funded and equipped group like ISIS unless American troops are by their side.

"Time and again, reliance on local partners has failed and it's not sufficient that they are willing, they need to be capable," said Katherine Zimmerman, senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. 

The U.S. has also trained and advised forces in both Yemen and Somalia, but Zimmerman said those forces are struggling to defeat al Qaeda affiliates in both places.  

Experts say the impact of U.S. drone strikes against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen is limited, given its weak government and security forces.

And Al Shabaab has switched from holding territory in Somalia to operations in several East African nations, which render drone strikes less effective in destroying the organization. 

Not having troops on the ground can also make it difficult to identify targets for strikes.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Ralph Jodice, who commanded NATO’s air campaign over Libya in 2011, noted that fighters are often using similar equipment, riding in makeshift vehicles and not wearing uniforms.

"Human intelligence in this situation is so important," he said in a recent interview. "That intelligence will help you to fuse and focus the exact targets that you want to be able to hit." 

Republican lawmakers have suggested airstrikes alone cannot defeat ISIS.

“An F-16 is not a strategy,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Thursday. “And airstrikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Hayden says limited intervention also sends the wrong message to would-be allies on the ground and in the region, as well as to enemies who doubt America’s resolve. 

“So when the president says we’re going to use airpower, but there are going to be no boots on the ground, I think that’s a message tailored to the American audience, but everyone else is listening to the same message,” he said. “And they’re getting the message of those words, that the American commitment might actually be limited as well.” 

Administration officials and military analysts say the air strategy has paid dividends.

So far, the U.S. fighter jets, bombers, attack aircraft and drones have conducted about 160 airstrikes in Iraq, employing mostly Hellfire missiles on more than 200 targets, which are mostly military vehicles, weapons and facilities, and at least 400 ISIS fighters. 

Officials say the strikes have been successful in degrading ISIS’s capabilities in Iraq, and halting the group’s gains there. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest says in other arenas, the president’s selective and strategic military deployment “succeeded in degrading the threat, and making those organizations less capable of threatening the American people.”

Obama on Wednesday noted that the U.S. recently killed the top leader of Al Qaeda's affiliate in Somalia, Al Shabaab, with an air strike. 

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, who wrote the plan for the first Gulf War, said boots on the ground is “not required” in many cases, due to the powerful abilities of modern aircraft.

“When you're moving across miles and miles of open desert with thousands of people in large number of vehicles you don't need somebody on the ground to tell you where that movement is occurring,” he said of ISIS fighters. 

And there are tangible political advantages. In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released this week, nearly two-thirds of Americans backed striking ISIS targets, but only one third supported the use of ground troops. 

“Politically it gives you a lot of cover,” said Princeton political historian Julian Zelizer. “It doesn’t require as much sacrifice, and the thought is it will dampen anti-war sentiment and give you more room.”

The political risks of limiting military action can also be lower than the alternative, according to Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson.

“It's messier, it takes longer, and sometimes it leaves the job half done, but it doesn't leave us with trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives down the rathole,” he said.

Still, Obama has not been entirely adverse to using ground forces — albeit in unconventional ways.

Special forces went into Pakistan for the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, and another team landed in Syria in a failed effort to free two American journalists who were later executed by ISIS. While the administration won't officially confirm them, there are numerous reports suggesting American special ops and intelligence officers operating throughout the Middle East.

There are also hundreds of American military advisers on the ground in Iraq, with others likely landing soon in Saudi Arabia to train Syrian opposition forces.

“It’s a bumper sticker,” Hayden said of the president's pledge not to send in troops. “And we’ve already got 1,500 pairs of boots on the ground. Who are we fooling?”