What’s the difference between “boots on the ground” and military personnel wearing boots who are engaged in combat – and perhaps dying – on the ground? If you can answer that question convincingly, perhaps you’d like to apply for John Kirby’s job, because he’s not doing it very successfully. Kirby is the State Department spokesman who, in answer to a question from a reporter about the 250 US troops being sent to Syria, denied President Obama ever said there’d be “no boots on the ground” in Syria. Here’s the video, and here’s the relevant transcript:
“Kirby: there was never this – there was never this, “No boots on the ground.” I don’t know where this keeps coming from.
Question: But yes there – well, yes, yes, there was.
Kirby: There was no – there was – no there wasn’t. There was –
Question: More than –
Kirby: We’re not going to be involved in a large-scale combat mission on the ground. That is what the President has long said.”
To anyone who has been following this, Kirby’s argument is patently absurd. The President told the BBC less than twenty-four hours previously that there would be “no boots on the ground” – and then his administration announced that 250 more booted US soldiers would be treading Syrian ground. Not only that, but prior to the summer of last year, the President assured the American people there’d be no “boots on the ground” a total of sixteen times.
As George Orwell dramatized in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and also in this memorable essay, the degeneration of language into an instrument of concealment is one of the hallmarks of the modern age. In the novel, there is a vast apparatus concerned solely with erasing the past in order to justify the actions of the present: the Obama administration doesn’t have the power to do that, and yet thinks it can achieve the same ends by simply denying what everyone knows to be true, as shown by Kirby’s surreal exchange with reporters:
“Question: The point is is that for months and months and months that the mantra from the President and everyone else in the Administration has been, ‘No boots on the ground’ and now –
“Kirby: No, that is not true.
Kirby: It’s just not true, Matt.
Question: It is.
Question: Mr. Kirby –
Kirby: It’s just not true.
Question: It’s true.
Kirby: No, it’s not. I just flatly, absolutely disagree with you …”
When you are dealing with a liar, it’s important to parse every word, every syllable, in order to tease real meaning out of the tissue of dissimulations – and, indeed, if we go back and do this with the President’s pronouncements over the past few years on this question, we get a sense that what is being said is not quite what we are hearing. And that, as Orwell pointed out, is the purpose of most political speech.
If you listen hard, you can hear Orwell’s ghost laughing.
What the Obama administration is doing here is on the same level as Bill Clinton’s handling of the Monica Lewinsky affair: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
So why is the administration engaged in a futile effort to deny the obvious, and make its spokesman look like the American equivalent of Baghdad Bob?
The answer is: politics. The American people have made it very clear that they consider the Iraq war a mistake and they want no repeat of that experience. And yet there are countervailing influences within the military and the national security bureaucracy that want exactly that and they will not be denied. Furthermore, these embedded dead-enders are well aware of the policy differences between Obama and his would-be successor: it was, after all, Hillary Clinton who pushed (and continues to push) for regime change in Syria, hatched a scheme with Gen. David Petraeus to arm Islamist rebels on a large scale, and pushed for the disastrous “liberation” of Libya.
Obama is a lame duck, and the second and third rank officials who really run our foreign policy are already adapting to the likelihood of a Clinton Restoration..
There are now over 4,000 US troops in Iraq, “advising” and “assisting” the Iraq military: there are hundreds in Syria – and this latter represents a significant extension of US intervention over and above what George W. Bush ever tried. Back in the days of “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the Bush administration continually threatened the Syrian government with “regime change,” but never made a serious move to translate rhetoric into action. The Obama administration recognizes no such constraints – and a second Clinton administration, if such there is to be, is likely to throw reticence to the winds and charge full-bore into Syria.
President Obama won the White House largely on the promise that he would not repeat Bush’s folly in the Middle East. Yet his legacy is likely to be that the war he hung around Hillary Clinton’s neck was restarted in the final months of his presidency. And if Mrs. Clinton does indeed succeed him, I have no doubt that she will escalate the war in Syria and in Iraq, with consequences down the road that we can only imagine.
The Republican alternatives are no less dispiriting. Ted Cruz wants to find out whether we can “make the sand glow.” Donald Trump, for all his “isolationist” rhetoric, vows to destroy the Islamic State – albeit without putting troops on the ground. (Want to bet that, once in office, he’ll reverse his stance on ground troops in a New York minute?)
The entire political class –including the alleged “outsiders” – are on the other side of the barricades from the average American when it comes to US intervention in the Middle East. Which leads one to conclude that we’re going to be in for a long and bloody battle over this question, with thousands more lives lost – and the only change that’s going to come won’t be led by politicians, but by a mass movement from below.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN