The limits of air strikes when fighting the Islamic State

Bombing is attractive because Americans are rightly leery of a prolonged ground campaign in the Middle East. The Iraq debacle still colors our thinking on intervention. A poll taken in August showed that only 42 percent of Americans favored deploying a significant number of ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State, though a slight majority is comfortable with limited numbers of special operations forces.

Air power seems like the perfect middle ground between a large ground force invasion and inaction: a way to hit the Islamic State hard while avoiding an Iraq-like quagmire. The previously cited poll also showed that 72 percent of Americans favor airstrikes on the Islamic State, and apparently our president-elect is among their ranks. As Eliot Cohen, one of our country’s leading military analysts, once wryly remarked, “Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.” Yet air power, if not used carefully, runs all the risks of a one-night stand: it can create false expectations, drag America into unwanted relationships with flawed partners, and winds up meaning little in the long-term.

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