A Night with the Brookings Institution: “Should the U.S. Put Boots on the Ground to Fight ISIS?”

by Kathleen Taylor

On June 24, the Brookings Institution held its first Brookings Debate, with three respected foreign policy analysts and a U.S. senator discussing whether the United States should put boots on the ground to fight the ISIS. Both sides provided persuasive arguments and offered well-informed perspectives, yet several key questions remain.  


(CBS News)

On June 24, the Brookings Institution held its first Brookings Debate, with three respected foreign policy analysts and a U.S. senator going head-to-head to discuss a critical policy question: Should the United States put boots on the ground to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? The challenge of containing ISIS, a formidable terrorist network that has taken over large swaths of Iraq and Syria and poses a threat to the wider Middle East region, has become one of the most important and divisive debates in U.S. foreign policy. Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to order air strikes against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria in September 2014, the debate has centered on whether this course of action is enough. Some members of the U.S. government and the international community have called for a more forceful reaction. Domestically, more than 50 percent of the American public supports sending U.S. troops to fight ISIS. The debaters at Brookings presented both sides of the argument, raising a number of questions that should be answered before the president and congress come to a decision on putting boots on the ground against ISIS.

Michael Doran of the Hudson Institute and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution both argued in favor of sending U.S. troops to fight ISIS, although their individual prescriptions differed. Mr. Doran contended that the Obama administration has done everything it could to keep U.S. troops out of Iraq and especially Syria, but that this strategy is not working: U.S. troops are necessary to resolve the situation in an expedient manner. Yet Mr. Doran clarified that a massive intervention is not required. Instead, the United States must build alliances to succeed, especially among the Sunni groups, many of which believe, erroneously, that the United States is aligned with Iran. Mr. Doran emphasized the critical role U.S. troops on the ground must play in providing training to Iraqi troops and Sunni forces to develop reliable allies in the fight against ISIS.

In concert to Mr. Doran’s stance, Mr. O’Hanlon called for a significant increase in the number of troops, estimating 7,000–10,000 as an adequate number. Mr. O’Hanlon posited that the success of ISIS is not the fault of the Iraqi military; rather, it is the result of political failures after U.S. troops left in 2011. Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki exacerbated sectarian tensions with his refusal to include the Sunnis and Kurds in the government, giving ISIS the upper hand in Iraq. Mr. O’Hanlon argued that the Iraqis must become capable of defending and governing themselves, but ISIS poses such a formidable and immediate threat that the United States should send troops. Mr. O’Hanlon also stated that U.S. troops are needed in Syria; however, the situation in the civil war-ridden country is so precarious that the United States needs to achieve results in Iraq before engaging with ISIS in Syria.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn) and Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution represented the other camp, arguing against U.S. boots on the ground. The senator spoke first, asserting that the United States, in all foreign policy situations, must be absolutely certain of its objectives. He then asked whether the United States wants to defeat ISIS or simply degrade it enough so that it is no longer a threat. Senator Murphy questioned whether placing U.S. troops on the ground was the best method of achieving U.S. goals in the region; he contended that sending in troops should be the last resort, as the presence of U.S. troops in the Middle East hinders political reconciliation. Senator Murphy concluded by stating that the United States cannot fight Iraq’s battles, and that the United States needs to find alternatives to military force in order to resolve the ISIS dilemma.

Building on Senator Murphy’s arguments against deploying additional troops, Mr. Shapiro suggested U.S. troops should not be deployed for two reasons. First, troops are not necessary from a U.S. national security standpoint. Second, sending in troops will not stop ISIS. He pointed out that ISIS poses no direct threat to the United States, and thus there is no cause for additional U.S. troops. Mr. Shapiro further argued that troop deployment will not solve the underlying problems that created ISIS, and could in fact exacerbate an already volatile situation. ISIS is a symptom of the sectarian problems that exist in the region, not the cause. Mr. Shapiro pointed out that years of U.S. occupation did not bring anticipated results in Iraq, and the United States should be wary of further military involvement.

Although both sides presented comprehensive and thought-provoking arguments, a few questions remain unanswered. Mr. Doran and Mr. O’Hanlon both estimated the number of troops they thought it would take to defeat ISIS, but each failed to project how long a mission against ISIS would take: a significant consideration when deciding to commit troops. On the other side, Senator Murphy and Mr. Shapiro failed to elaborate on what they view as viable alternatives to troop deployment. What would those strategies be? Humanitarian assistance? Economic incentives? Political reconciliation? Neither side explored whether a satisfactory course of action could employ boots on the ground in concert with other policies, perhaps the result of the duality inherent in a debate setting. Nevertheless, the first Brookings Debate provided persuasive positions for both sides of the argument and offered well-informed perspectives on the possibilities moving forward in the United States’ fight against ISIS.

Kathleen Taylor is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.