October 20, 2018

Elan Carr hesitant to support sending U.S. troops back to Iraq

I happened to interview Elan Carr, a Republican congressional candidate with substantial Middle East experience, on a day that may be remembered as noteworthy in the latest American attempt to defeat terrorism in that tormented region.

Carr, currently a deputy Los Angeles County district attorney, is running for the seat being vacated by the retirement of Rep. Henry Waxman, a respected veteran Democrat in the heavily Democratic district that reaches from the Westside along the coast to the South Bay. Carr’s opponent is Democratic State Sen. Ted Lieu, who is currently favored to win.

Before meeting Carr at the Corner Bakery in Westwood, I had watched on television as Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the joint Chiefs of Staff and President Barack Obama’s top military adviser, testified before a Senate committee. Dempsey raised the possibility of an American involvement much more extensive than what the president had said in public. He said that if the coalition of allies being assembled by the United States doesn’t work, and if there are threats to the United States, then “I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.” 

 Here we go again, I thought.

With Carr’s experience in the Middle East, I figured we should talk about dispatching ground forces to Iraq. There were other aspects to the issue, such as our drones and other air strikes. But what worried most Americans was the idea of sending more combat troops to a country where so many lives were lost in a war that in hindsight seems futile.  

 Carr is well qualified to talk about the area. His mother was born in Iraq, and fled to Israel because of anti-Semitism before immigrating to the United States.  Carr served in Iraq as an Army officer, part of anti-terrorist teams operating through much of the country and prosecuted terrorists before Iraqi courts.  He also trained Iraqi judges and, later in his career, helped create a public defender’s office in Israel and often visits there.

“Do you think … we should be prepared to send in combat troops?” I asked.

He replied, “My concern is we will do what so many presidents do, that is they dip a foot into the swimming pool and gesture militarily.  Military gestures are exceedingly dangerous, especially when dealing with the Arab world, and I would argue they are dangerous everywhere, especially now.  I’m afraid what the president might do is gesture.”

I wanted to know if he thought we should send in more troops than the small training force envisioned by Obama. “Should we send in 10,000 troops?” I asked.

“I think we shouldn’t send troops,” he said.

“No troops?” I asked.

He said, “I think we should either not send any troops, or, if the decision is made that we are going to commit militarily to the destruction of ISIS, then we have to ensure that ISIS is destroyed through that engagement of military force. And that means a massive air campaign, and it means ground troops.  Now I’m not saying that’s what we should be doing. I’m saying that it’s either here, or it’s there.  You can’t do this in the middle.  Either you are going to engage, and if you engage it has to be to a decisive conclusion, or we have to sit back and advise and encourage relationships [with Sunni tribal chiefs], which is something I have advised.  It was just a few years ago when we had relationships with Sunni tribal chiefs in Iraq that partnered with our military to fight Sunni insurgency, and we blew those relationships.”

I told him, “I am having trouble figuring out where you are coming from.  You say we should send no troops.”

“What we should do now is make a choice,” he said. “That choice would be: A)  Advise Iraqi security forces, build relationships with Sunni tribal chiefs but not engage militarily. Or B) Engage militarily with the amount of force needed to do what the president says he wants to do, which is to destroy ISIS.  That is the choice.  And I would not do anything between those two, in the middle.  Because if we do something between those two, the results will be catastrophic.”

I felt a bit like Carr must feel when he is questioning a recalcitrant witness. “So,” I said, “I’m a voter out in your congressional district.  I want to know what are you going to do?  You say send no troops or send plenty of troops.  Somehow that doesn’t seem like a satisfactory answer.”  Actually, I was thinking it wasn’t an answer at all, because the public wouldn’t tolerate another Iraq expeditionary force. And it would be hard for us to do nothing.

“You’re asking me what choice,” he replied.

“Yes, “ I said,” You are president. What choice?”

“The choice I would make if I were president would be not to send ground troops; to advise Iraqi security forces and to establish relationships with [tribal] chiefs who were working with us a few years ago in combating Sunni terrorism.”

“What if that doesn’t work?” I asked.

“If that doesn’t work, we have some difficult choices to make,” he said. “You can always choose to engage. But if we deem it critical to protect the United States, we engage in Iraq; we re-engage in Iraq.  We’re talking about a major commitment of troops at a time when our military, the budget cuts to our military, are just catastrophic. … We are stretched so thinly and our manpower is so eroded I don’t know if we have the capabilities.”

In the end, he returned to his main point: “Doing nothing is not a reasonable choice, in my view.  A halfhearted commitment of military power is not a reasonable choice.  Those are bad choices, and so I am ruling that out. … The other choice is the choice I would opt for, which is support and training and rekindling those relationships [with the Sunni chiefs].”

He had made that point over and over again.  But what if those alliances with those Sunni chiefs didn’t work? What if they won’t fight the Sunni ISIS? What if some of our trainers were killed or captured?  

I left our conversation with as many questions as I have had listening to Obama, or hearing Dempsey say he may one day recommend sending ground troops to Iraq. 

 I know there are other aspects to the campaign.  Carr is a moderate Republican who, if he wins, will have to maneuver within the right-wing Republican caucus.  He is pro-Israel, but may have to depart from the uncompromising pro-Likud views of some of his backers. But for the American people now, the issue is ISIS and whether we will mount a huge ground effort to defeat it. 

Next month, I’ll talk about this with Lieu.  Let’s see what he has to say.