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To destroy ISIS, maybe we need to switch horses

In January 1897, in one of history's most famous strategic mea culpas, British Prime Minister Robert Lord Salisbury admitted to the House of Lords that, in supporting an increasingly corrupt and vicious Ottoman Empire against France and Russia, Great Britain might have "put all our money on the wrong horse."

The comment prefaced an embarrassing but essential reversal of four decades of British foreign policy. That famous policy about-face comes to mind as Washington war drums beat in the wake of Tuesday's grisly video depicting the beheading of American journalist James Foley by a robed and hooded ISIS executioner.

Of course, it's to be expected that persistent critics of the administration's defense and foreign policy like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., would demand that the president abandon his characteristic military caution and commit the U.S. to a renewed war in Iraq, this time against the self-styled Islamic State.

As McCain commented in an interview with the Arizona Republic's editorial board, brushing aside the president's intention to "contain" ISIS until the new Iraqi government gets its act together, "You don't contain these people. They're a virus."

Most of his colleagues have been less iatric. But waving the bloody shirt has exerted its usual impact, and Tuesday's reconfirmation of ISIS's ideological fanaticism and sheer savagery has awakened the inner warrior even among normally less hawkish politicians and pundits. 

For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., not known for warlike views, called on Thursday for "coordinated and sustained action" to defeat ISIS. "Only then," she argued, "can we reverse [its] rise and eliminate this very dangerous terrorist threat."

The problem, of course, is that, apart from Kurdistan's Peshmerga, an essentially territorial and lightly armed militia, it remains entirely unclear whose action we should coordinate and sustain. On the contrary, since the American people by a very substantial majority continue to oppose any re-engagement of U.S. ground combat forces in Iraq, most legislators share Mr. Obama's caution.

Thus, Ms. Feinstein's fellow Californian, Rep. Adam Schiff, warns that "Most Democrats and Republicans are extraordinarily wary of being sucked into a large occupation, both because it will kill a lot of Americans and because we saw in Iraq the last time that it didn't work."

Indeed, even those like McCain and Graham who are most eager to see a broadened military campaign against ISIS deny seeking "boots on the ground," even though expert agreement is nearly universal that air strikes alone will have a wasting effect on ISIS's operations, let alone its survival.

Speaking Thursday at a Pentagon news conference, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned that, while U.S. air strikes had helped curtail ISIS's advance, he expected the extremists to regroup and resume offensive operations, helped no little by their ability to withdraw freely across the border into Syria. 

Of course, the air campaign could be expanded into Syria, and the administration apparently is considering doing so. But that still leaves unanswered the question, what ground forces will do the difficult and dangerous work of forcing ISIS to expose itself to air attack, follow up such attacks to destroy those who have escaped their effects, and reassert control over the geography thus cleansed of their baneful presence?

In short, if not our boots on the ground, then whose? With recent estimates of ISIS strength running into the tens of thousands, armed with modern weapons ó most of them ours ó we're not talking here about a few hundred Special Forces soldiers on horseback. As Army Lt. Gen. Mick Bednarek pointed out a few weeks ago, ISIS "is not just a violent extremist organization. This is an army, and it takes an army to defeat an army."

But regional armies willing and able to take ISIS on seem to be in relatively short supply. The Turks could do it, but have shown no disposition whatever to do so. The Israelis have their hands full with Hamas, and would in any case be unacceptable to other regional players ó recall efforts to keep Israel quiescent during both Gulf Wars.

As for the Iraqi army that we organized and trained for six years at such heroic effort and expense, its principal contribution to date has been to serve as ISIS's unwilling commissariat. 

That leaves only one army that has demonstrated both the motivation and the capacity to deal with ISIS. Unfortunately, that army belongs to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. You remember him: the fellow whom, in our shortsightedness, we several years ago consigned to political oblivion, but who unhelpfully declined to "go gentle into that good night," and who since has proved as politically resilient and militarily effective as he is ruthless.

Ruthless, but certainly not as brutally barbaric as ISIS, and never having presented a direct threat to the U.S. So if Sen. McCain is right that destroying ISIS is a truly viracidal requirement, maybe, like Lord Salisbury, it's time to switch horses.

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