Obama’s Open-Ended, Reckless, ISIS Gamble

Andrew Sullivan —  Sep 10 2014 @ 12:21pm

President Obama Delivers Statement On Situation In Iraq

Ahead of the president’s major address tonight, word has leaked that Obama is considering airstrikes in Syria as part of the military operation against ISIS:

President Obama is prepared to use U.S. military airstrikes in Syria as part of an expanded campaign to defeat the Islamic State and does not believe he needs formal congressional approval to take that action, according to people who have spoken with the president in recent days.  Obama discussed his plans at a dinner with a bipartisan group of foreign policy experts this week at the White House and made clear his belief that he has the authority to attack the militant Islamist group on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border to protect U.S national security, multiple people who participated in the discussion said. The move to attack in Syria would represent a remarkable escalation in strategy for Obama, who has sought during his presidency to reduce the U.S. military engagement in the Middle East.

I guess entering one failed state’s civil war wasn’t challenging enough! Let’s enter two while we’re at it. Exit strategy? Pshaw. That’ll be up to Obama’s successor. In a more granular must-read analysis of this clusterfuck, Marc Lynch stresses that while a strategy of airstrikes and supporting local ground forces may be able to help restore stability and sovereignty to Iraq, in Syria these options “offer no plausible path to political or strategic success”:

A strategy predicated on the existence of an effective moderate Syrian rebel force is doomed to fail. Instead, the focus should be on shaping the environment in ways which will encourage the emergence of a politically legitimate and more effectively unified opposition. The destructive and radicalizing effects of uncoordinated flows of aid to competing rebel groups from outside states and private actors have long been obvious. The emerging regional strategy offers perhaps the first opportunity to unify these efforts to build rather than divide the Syrian opposition. The new coalition should expand on efforts to shut off funding and support not only for ISIS but also for the other powerful Islamist trends within the Syrian rebellion.

This will take time. The immediate goal in Syria should be the securing of a strategic pause between the rebel forces and the regime in order to focus military efforts on ISIS.  Crucially, this strategic pause does not mean cooperation or alignment with Asad, or a retreat from the Geneva Accord principles of a political transition. It should be understood instead as buying the time to shape an environment in which such a transition could become plausible. … The longer-term goal should be to translate this anti-ISIS tacit accord into an effective agreement by the external backers of both Asad and the rebels on a de-escalation of the conflict.  Rather than a military drive on Damascus, the international community should support the delivery of serious humanitarian relief, security and governance to rebel controlled areas and refugees.

I simply do not believe we are capable of pulling anything like this off. Robert Hunter also complicates the question of whether getting rid of Assad should be among our objectives there:

We continue to talk about “arming moderates,” but no US leader has ever articulated what would come after Assad. There is a basic assumption that, when Assad is gone, all will be rosy. The opposite is more likely true. Added to the ongoing carnage would be the slaughter of the minority Alawites. The risks of a spreading Sunni-Shia civil war would increase dramatically, even more than now. The irony is that many who now worry about ISIS argue that it would not have progressed this far if we had only “armed the moderates” in Syria. But given what would have likely happened if they had succeeded, this argument is nonsense. Yet even now the administration, along with academic and congressional critics, fails to address the consequences of its own rhetoric about getting rid of Assad; that statement has become a mantra, disconnected from any serious process of thought or analysis.

Juan Cole lays out some of the inherent risks in a US military campaign against ISIS:

Obama appears to envisage arming and training the “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army, who have consistently been pushed to the margins by al-Qaeda offshoots and affiliates. Private billionaires in the Gulf will continue to support ISIL or its rival, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Succor Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda). Strengthening yet another guerrilla group will, again, likely prolong the fighting. Moreover, in the past two years, Free Syrian Army moderate groups have gone radical and joined Nusrah or ISIL at an alarming rate. Defectors or defeated groups from the FSA will take their skills and arms with them into the al-Qaeda offshoots.

In Iraq, while giving the Kurds and the Iraqi army close air support against ISIL has already borne fruit when the local forces were defending their ethnic enclaves, it hasn’t helped either largely Kurdish forces or the (largely Shiite) Iraqi army take Sunni Arab territory. Several campaigns against Tikrit have failed. The only thing worse than this failure might be success. Success would mean smart phone video making its way to YouTube showing US bombing urban residential buildings full of Sunni Arab families in support for a motley crew of Kurdish (non-Arab) fighters and Shiite troops and militiamen. Helping such forces take Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, would make for a very bad image in the Sunni world.

But we never learn, do we? Robin Wright’s comparison of the best- and worst-case scenarios illustrates how tremendous those risks are:

For the United States, the best possible outcome would be for the militants to withdraw from their illusory state in Iraq to bases in Syria, where they might wither in the face of strengthened Syrian rebels; ideally, the rebels would also bring an end to the Assad regime in Damascus. Iraq and Syria, with their multicultural societies, would then have breathing room to incubate inclusive governments. That’s the goal, anyway. The worst outcome would be another open-ended, treasury-sapping, coffin-producing, and increasingly unpopular war that fails to erase ISIS or resurrect Iraq. It might even, in time, become a symbolic graveyard of American greatness—as it was for the French and the British. The Middle East has a proven record of sucking us in and spitting us out.

Maybe it will take another humiliating, devastating defeat in an unwinnable war to finally get Americans to understand the limits of their military power – and the increasing toxicity of the American brand.

Jack Goldstone pens an explainer on ISIS, including some suggestions for how it might be defeated. He argues that while US or NATO military reprisals may be necessary to “blunt its success and undermine the feeling of invincibility it has given to its converts”, there are much more daunting challenges beyond that:

Second, the civil institutions that provide a power-base for moderate political organizations and their leaders must be rebuilt and given credibility. In Syria, this cannot happen until the Assad regime falls; in Iraq this cannot happen until a post-Maliki government establishes its credibility and effectiveness. … Third, the ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict in the Middle East is fueling every sort of violent group: Hezbollah, Hamas, ISIS, and others. At some point, the global community will have to lean on Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to cease their proxy wars and come to an agreement similar to that of 1648 in Europe, which ended the Thirty Years War that capped over a century of religious conflicts: every country can control its religious policy within its own borders, but agrees to stop meddling in religious conflicts in other countries and to respect other countries’ full sovereignty. This may be a distant goal (it took nearly a century in Europe) but is vital if the region is ever to know stable peace.

Shane Harris wants Obama to get straight whether he plans to “degrade”, “defeat”, or “destroy” ISIS, the last of which Harris considers an impossible goal:

Even if a combined military-political campaign were successful against the Islamic State, history shows that destroying fundamentalist organizations and terrorist networks is exceptionally difficult. Although Obama claims that the United States has “systematically dismantled” al Qaeda in the tribal regions of Pakistan, counterterrorism experts debate whether that’s true, pointing to the fact that Zawahiri is still alive and giving direction to fighters, as well as forming new al Qaeda affiliates, most recently in India. And nearly 13 years after the 9/11 attacks, a sustained military campaign against the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan has failed to destroy the organization. Israel, for its part, has been unable to destroy Hamas and Hezbollah despite the country’s physical proximity to the decades-old militant groups and its ability to deploy one of the most formidable military and intelligence forces on the planet to the fight. The lesson is clear: Terrorist networks are persistent, and they return to their favored targets again and again.

Remarking on the internal illogic of the case for war, Justin Logan doesn’t see how even a successful military operation will solve any of the underlying problems:

The very same political forces that led to a Sunni insurgency during the aughts have contributed to the rise of ISIS. If those politics don’t change—and I see little reason to believe we can make that happen—then you may make gains against ISIS, but the underlying political disease that’s causing the problem remains untreated, and possibly untreatable. In other words, even if the Islamic State is destroyed, there will be an array of other spoilers endangering a thriving Kurdish minority and a stable, successful Iraqi government that integrates the country’s Sunni minority. In fact, these other problems preexisted and helped lead to the successes of the Islamic State. Are we just supposed to cross that bridge when we get to it?

Michael Brendan Dougherty serves up some sharp criticism, lamenting America’s inability to say “no” to lengthy, expensive experiments at fixing other countries’ security problems:

A three-year commitment is merely a hope that drones and bombs plus time equals a stability that is peaceful enough and liberal enough to make our quarter-century of involvement not look like a total waste. But it dumps all the responsibility for solving Iraq on the United States, and makes us yet again a convenient scapegoat for the whole region’s failure. …

This is all part of a broader pattern of the U.S. making too many promises. We’ve promised Japan and the entirety of Southeast Asia to manage China’s rise peacefully. Even as our NATO allies halved their share of military spending since the end of the Cold War, we’ve extended a security guarantee that a Russian advance on Estonia will be treated no differently from a land invasion of the United States. It’s a promise so risible it practically dares a Russian challenge. In fighting ISIS and propping up Iraq, the president is promising to finally make good on America’s constant failure to manage a millennia of hatreds and radical schools of thought, the politics of about six regional powers, and centuries of imperial hubris.

Lastly, George Packer compares Obama’s current situation to that of Gerald Ford after the fall of Saigon:

[Tonight] is a speech that Obama, even more than Ford, never wanted to give. He ran for reëlection, in part, on having fulfilled a promise to end the war in Iraq—always the previous Administration’s war. His eagerness to be rid of the albatross of Iraq played no small part in clearing the way for ISIS to take a third of the country, including Mosul, and to threaten Baghdad and Erbil.

All the more reason to give the President credit (though his political enemies never will) for his willingness, however reluctant, to turn around and face the catastrophe unfolding in Iraq and Syria. Wednesday’s speech will no doubt nod toward staying out (no boots on the ground, no new “American war”), even as it makes the case for going back in (air strikes, international coalitions, the moral and strategic imperative to defeat ISIS). This is the sort of balancing act that Obama speeches specialize in. But he also needs to tell the country bluntly that there will almost certainly be more American casualties, and that the struggle against ISIS—against radical Islam generally, but especially in this case—will be difficult, with no quick military solution and no end in sight. Otherwise, he’ll have brought the public and Congress on board without levelling with them, a pattern set in Vietnam and repeated in Iraq, with unhappy consequences.

The only way to air this debate properly is a full and robust vote in the Senate, preceding a formal declaration of war. That’s what the Constitution demands. And given the emotional rush to war in the country and Washington, you begin to see the wisdom of the Founders’ judgment.

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Iraq in the Brady Briefing room of the White House on June 19, 2014 in Washington, DC. Obama spoke about the deteriorating situation as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants move toward Baghdad after taking control over northern Iraqi cities. By Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)