The Obama administration is now so tongue-tied it can’t tell us what it is about to do in the Middle East. So let’s pitch in: The Obama administration is going to war in Iraq and Syria.
Having settled that, the arithmetic is simple: This is the third war against Islamic jihadists Washington has waged in a little more than 10 years, and its Washington’s third big mistake.
Obama’s new non-plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, the self-styled caliphate that has swiftly captured parts of Syria and Iraq, will have to clarify before we can judge it in any entirety. This, paradoxically, is why we have to judge it now: this latest push into the Middle East is shapeless, aimless, wanting in all leadership and conviction, promises to repeat every error the previous administration made in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is less than half of what any kind of comprehensive strategy would have to include.
(Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, the play was good and the policy is sound.)
There’s an inability to learn at work here that goes back at least to Jimmy Carter’s administration and very arguably much further.
Lesson one: Ever since Carter’s CIA gave weapons and millions of dollars to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, the U.S. has armed and financed extremists motivated by an indiscriminate ressentiment toward any and all Westerners. No wonder some Iranians think the U.S. created the Islamic State. They are right, except they give Washington too much credit in assuming it did so on purpose.
Lesson two: Every war against jihadists fails to destroy anything except entire countries, as in Iraq, and wins the jihadists support. It is imperative to recognize a few things here: (1) the nation-state in this part of the world is a fragile institution; (2) anti-Western sentiment runs deep and wide across the Middle East; and (3) in consequence of (2), wars against jihadists draw ever-more people, most of whom are otherwise ordinary, to their cause.
The take-home: The greater the battlefield success of any Western coalition, the greater the overall failure.
The Islamic State’s strategists appear to know this stuff cold—which is why, as everyone admits, they are winning the propaganda war. This mob of savages traces its roots to the Sunni militias fighting the U.S. troops President Bush sent into Iraq in 2003. As they see it, Americans destroyed their country in front of their eyes and installed a Shiite government. Disaffected Sunnis, many of them alienated youths, saw appeal in ISIS, which rebased in Syria before returning southward.
Make no mistake about the brand. The cause is the redress of Sunni grievance, which is why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a militant Islamist claiming Muhammad as an ancestor, was chosen to create and lead the Islamic State. But it is chock-a-block with orphaned officers from Saddam Hussein’s army—Ba’athists, who are nominally secularists and more than nominally spoiling for a fight against the Americans. This is why the ISIS armies have been so phenomenally successful on the battlefield.
A couple of other ingredients go into Obama’s muddle. For one thing, whatever the polls may suggest about what Americans think, they have no more stomach for Wilsonian wars to light the democratic torch for others. This is the new reality, and the reality of this reality is it will endure.
For another, Obama can’t get his allies right, and in fairness this is not all his fault. He inherited a tangled web of alliances with oil producers who include the Qataris and the Saudis. The latter are accomplished at beheading infidels all by themselves; both nations are Sunni and both actively support the Islamic State.
On the flip side, the administration won’t—or can’t for political considerations—cooperate with either Iran or the Assad government in Syria, both of which are vigorously opposed to the Islamic State and all it stands for.
So we get Obama’s… well, it’s hard to decide what to call what he’s doing now. Trying to follow him this past week together with General Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has been like watching Olympic ping-pong.
There will be no American troops in either Iraq or Syria, the president assures everyone. While Obama doubles down at such places as MacDill Air Force Base in Florida, Dempsey softens up the Senate and the American public to the idea that American troops will almost certainly be necessary to get the degrading and destroying done.
It isn’t a war and Obama doesn’t need congressional authorization, the White House says. (And Congress obliged last week by authorizing funds for rebels but not war.) Military experts are unanimous, on the other hand, that putting American advisers into combat means Americans are at war.
Nothing good can come of this. At the moment, the airstrikes Obama is counting on to defeat ISIS forces amount to “plinking”—meaning they might hit a boat in the Euphrates River, a truck, or some other one-off target.
Plinking? The president is in for the penny but not the pound, and this bodes well for no one except muddlers. This caper could easily prove to be Obama’s Jimmy Carter moment—his capstone failure, the equivalent of those helicopters Carter sent into the Iranian desert only to watch them crash when sand wrecked their engines.
I argued in this space two weeks ago that a short, sharp air campaign to contain ISIS, followed by a concerted plan to rehabilitate the region, was the best way at this. Neither is even under consideration.
O.K., there are still better alternatives to Obama’s plans. Given the certainty of a worse-than-futile result of any Western-led effort, staying out will have the most positive impact. Let domestic forces contain ISIS, which they can, and let ISIS form its vaunted caliphate in a circumscribed zone of Iraq.
Let’s call this strategy passive aggression. The Islamic State will lose appeal when there are no Western aggressors to resent, and the state it declares cannot possibly work. ISIS will degrade and destroy ISIS. No one else can.
Here’s the funny thing. Among those advocating such a strategy is none other than Chelsea Manning, who (as Bradley Manning) leaked hundreds of thousands of official documents in 2010. From her prison cell at Fort Leavenworth, Manning just penned a sophisticated take on ISIS, where it came from, and how to defeat it—in the desert war, the ideological war, and the propaganda war.
Set aside whatever may be your view of Manning. She seems to have been a good intelligence analyst. Take the piece published in last Tuesday’s Guardian, a measured elaboration of a strategy based on her knowledge of ISIS, as food for thought.
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