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War, Peace and the Next President

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

When President Woodrow Wilson ran for re-election in 1916, as Europeans slaughtered each other on an unprecedented scale, his slogan was, "He kept us out of war." If Barack Obama were allowed to run for re-election, he could use this slogan: "He kept us out of Syria."

Will his successor? Given that the United States has been continuously at war for more than 14 years, you might think this topic would be a focus of the presidential campaign. But it's been largely ignored. Military involvement in foreign conflicts is no longer unusual enough to warrant much attention from the candidates or the electorate.

It wasn't always that way. In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush expressed deep skepticism about using the American military for peacekeeping, nation building and other humanitarian missions. As his security adviser Condoleezza Rice put it, "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

Once in office, however, Bush abandoned this policy of restraint, launching ground wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither was finished, much less won, when he left office.

By that time, Americans appeared weary of the toll. Obama was elected in 2008 in part because he was among the few politicians who opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

He stuck to the agreement reached by Bush for the withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011. But he ordered a major escalation in Afghanistan, hoping for a success that would facilitate an early exit. His hopes were not realized.

Nearly 10,000 U.S. troops are still there, with no exit date on the calendar. The top American commander in Afghanistan said in December, "My intent would be to keep as much as I could for as long as I could."

That war, of course, is rarely even acknowledged on the campaign trail. It has been pushed aside by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Some 3,700 U.S. troops are in Iraq, assisting the Iraqi army in fighting the new enemy. Obama has been waging an aerial campaign against the group since August 2014, but he has rejected sending additional ground forces.

Whatever he does, the problem will be awaiting the next president. If history and campaign rhetoric are any guide, the chances are high that we will wade deeper into the conflict.

Some of the Republican candidates have endorsed sending more American troops to fight the Islamic State. John Kasich and Jeb Bush both favor that course. Marco Rubio said if he is elected, "our troop strength in that effort will be determined by what's necessary to achieve victory, not some artificial constraint or an artificial number that I make up in my own head."

Though Donald Trump itches to "bomb the s--- out of" the Islamic State, he has indicated he would put more troops into Iraq. Ted Cruz is also partial to assault from the air, pledging to "carpet-bomb them into oblivion." But he says he would dispatch American combat units "if need be."

Hillary Clinton has been more cautious, without ruling out that option. In November she said the U.S. "should immediately deploy the special operations force President Obama has already authorized, and be prepared to deploy more as more Syrians get into the fight."

Bernie Sanders is the only candidate with a strong aversion to expanding the war. He says the war against the Islamic State should be "led and sustained by nations in the region that have the means to protect themselves."

It's not impossible that he will take oath of office 11 months from now. Barring that, though, our military role in Syria and Iraq will probably expand.

Clinton is not exactly a safe bet to practice restraint, given her long history of erring on the side of aggressive action. The fierce martial rhetoric of the Republicans, meanwhile, will make it hard for any of them to resist demands for escalation.

When you have promised to "destroy ISIS," as they do, you will ultimately be judged on whether you achieve that goal -- or, at the very least, do everything possible to achieve it. Opening the door to greater involvement is easier than closing it.

Judging from the campaign so far, Americans have come to expect more war no matter what. The next president is not likely to surprise them.

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