We're three months into our newest war, the one against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and nobody's happy with how it's going.
Hawks complain that President Obama isn't committing enough military force to win. Doves, noting that Obama just doubled the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, worry that the conflict will become the kind of slippery slope that drew us into quagmires such as Vietnam. And critics on both sides charge that the administration has no clear strategy for success.
There's an element of truth in all those critiques, but they all miss the point.
What has so many people perplexed, I think, is that in Iraq, Obama has — without announcing it — broken with a principle that has dominated U.S. military thinking for nearly a quarter of a century: the Powell Doctrine.
The Powell Doctrine is a set of war principles laid out by Gen. Colin L. Powell when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1990s. . Among other things, Powell felt that the United States should no longer fight the kind of “limited war” it had tried to fight in Vietnam. If the United States went to war again, he advised, it should use all the military power at its command to win as quickly and decisively as possible.
That was the thinking that guided the first Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and even — in different forms — the long counterinsurgency wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed: Every element of American military power was thrown into the fight, including tens of thousands of U.S. troops on the ground.
Not so in the fight against Islamic State — even though Obama and his aides have described the group as a direct threat to U.S. citizens and U.S. interests.
This time, the president has drawn a line to limit what American troops in Iraq will do: They can advise, assist and train Iraqi forces, but they will not participate in ground combat.
Last week, asked if there were circumstances under which he would send U.S. troops into ground combat, Obama said: “If we discovered that [Islamic State] had gotten possession of a nuclear weapon, and we had to run an operation to get it out of their hands, then yes.” Otherwise, no.
Even more striking, officials say the United States has held back some aid from the Iraqi government, its most important ally in the fight against the militant group, to make sure Prime Minister Haider Abadi delivers on his promises to build a more inclusive regime —specifically one that offers more to Sunni Arabs, whose grievances opened the way to Islamic State's rise.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained the idea in a congressional hearing this month — and said the Powell Doctrine of maximum available force wasn't suited to a situation like the one posed by Islamic State.
“I just don't see it in our interest to take this fight on ourselves with a large military contingent,” Dempsey said. Too much U.S. force, he warned, could “generate antibodies within the population that could actually be counterproductive to what you're trying to achieve.”
Besides, he added, the United States has been there before. “This is my third shot at Iraq,” Dempsey said later, noting that he served in both earlier wars.
This time, he said, instead of “taking ownership” of the war, the United States wants to make sure ownership stays with the Iraqis, “and then hold them accountable for the outcomes.”
And that's how Obama hopes to avoid a slippery slope: by drawing a firm limit to U.S. involvement. The limit isn't the number of troops in Iraq, which is growing from about 1,600 to about 3,100. It's in the prohibition against ground combat and in the insistence that aid will flow only as long as the Iraqi government pulls its weight, including allowing U.S. training and aid to Sunni tribes that volunteer to fight Islamic State.
What are the risks of ignoring the Powell Doctrine and launching this new experiment in limited war?
One is that the conflict will last longer. Obama has warned that the fight against Islamic State, which has no more than 18,000 hard-core members, will last a long time. Dempsey has estimated it will take three to four years, about the same amount of time as the U.S. spent in World War II.
The other risk is that limiting U.S. involvement — even as firm a limit as Obama has imposed so far — is no guarantee against future pressure to take another step down the slippery slope.
In wars, unexpected things happen, and planning has to be nimble. As Dempsey acknowledged acerbically last week, “Yes, we have a strategy.... But here's what I'll tell you about that strategy: It's going to change. It's going to change often.”
And if the conflict drags on long enough, we will have a new president in office, facing the same pressure to do more. Every politician who's thinking about running for president right now should be praying earnestly that Obama's Plan A works.
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