President Obama has finally come up with a strategy against the self-styled “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria.
Better late than never—and there is much in this strategy that is correct, if the administration is actually willing to face up to the reality of what its strategy will require. Which we have very good reason to doubt.
Here’s what’s good about the strategy.
First, after a good deal of previous wavering and stumbling on this point, President Obama finally recognized that the Islamic State is a powerful terrorist group that must be destroyed, rather than just managed or contained. On the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks—an unlucky number, as it turns out—it is impossible to avoid the parallels between ISIS now and al-Qaeda then. The only real difference is that ISIS is arguably stronger than al-Qaeda ever was. So allowing it to remain in existence is not an option.
Second, the president acknowledged that we cannot fight the Islamic State on one side of the Syrian border while leaving it untouched on the other side. More important, he rejected the idea that in fighting ISIS in Syria, we should ally ourselves with the Assad regime.
Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.
The decision to support the Syrian opposition as a counterweight to jihadists—and the question of whether such a non-jihadist opposition even exists—will be the most controversial part of this strategy. But the logic behind it is inexorable.
To those who object that we can’t support the Syrian opposition because we might be throwing our weight behind Islamists, the same objection holds with even greater force when it comes to the Assad regime. Bashar al-Assad can only be considered “secular” if you ignore that his main geopolitical sponsor is the radical Shiite theocracy in Iran, or that he relies on the jihadist terror army of Hezbollah for his shock troops. These are our strategic enemies in the region, and an alliance with them would be self-defeating.
As Sherlock Holmes said, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Doing nothing about ISIS is impossible, and so is volunteering to serve as an air force for Iran and Hezbollah. What remains, then, is to support a non-jihadist opposition that will fight against the Islamic State without propping up the Assad regime.
But we have to recognize how improbable this is, or rather, how difficult it will be to pull it off, and we have to consider all of the concrete steps that will be required.
Unfortunately, this is an administration that tends to prefer self-congratulatory fantasy to reality.
You can see that in Obama’s speech, which is self-congratulatory in a petty, peevish way. So he declares: “Over the last several years, we have consistently taken the fight to terrorists who threaten our country.” Over the last several years—as if no one was doing anything before he came into office? Or: “This is a core principle of my presidency: if you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” A core principle of his presidency—as if he invented the idea of fighting terrorism? President Obama could have said that America has taken the fight to terrorists over the past 13 years, or that offering no safe haven to terrorists is a core principle of American foreign policy. But he cannot bring himself to share any credit for anything, and particularly any credit, even implicitly, with George W. Bush.
This preening, neurotic need for self-congratulation leads Obama to present a ridiculous fantasy assessment of the runaway success of his own foreign policy.
Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world. It is America that has the capacity and the will to mobilize the world against terrorists. It is America that has rallied the world against Russian aggression, and in support of the Ukrainian peoples’ right to determine their own destiny. It is America—our scientists, our doctors, our know-how—that can help contain and cure the outbreak of Ebola. It is America that helped remove and destroy Syria’s declared chemical weapons so they cannot pose a threat to the Syrian people—or the world—again. And it is America that is helping Muslim communities around the world not just in the fight against terrorism, but in the fight for opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future.
Does he really think that Putin isn’t winning in Ukraine? Did he really just promise to cure Ebola? Does he actually think Assad isn’t using chemical weapons any more? Is he really going to boast about bringing “opportunity, tolerance, and a more hopeful future” to Muslim communities as Libya collapses into civil war?
Maybe he really believes these things—and that’s the problem. Here’s how Tim Arango, Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times—the New York Times, mind you—recently described the administration’s approach.
It’s not my job to rate the Obama administration’s actions in Iraq. But I will tell you that after 2011, the administration basically ignored the country. And when officials spoke about what was happening there they were often ignorant of the reality. They did not want to see what was really happening because it conflicted with their narrative that they left Iraq in reasonably good shape. In 2012, as violence was escalating, I wrote a story, citing UN statistics, that showed how civilian deaths from attacks were rising. Tony Blinken, who was then Biden’s national security guy and a top Iraq official, pushed back, even wrote a letter to the editor, saying that violence was near historic lows. That was not true. Even after Fallujah fell to ISIS at the end of last year, the administration would push back on stories about Maliki’s sectarian tendencies, saying they didn’t see it that way. So there was a concerted effort by the administration to not acknowledge the obvious until it became so apparent—with the fall of Mosul—that Iraq was collapsing.
So the risk of a strategy that uses air power only and relies on local forces to do the fighting on the ground, which is what Obama is proposing, is that he will stick to that strategy—in order to prove that he’s not George W. Bush—even if there is abundant evidence that it is failing. Similarly, the risk of a strategy that revolves around supporting a moderate Syrian opposition is that the administration will simply deem that whatever opposition groups it finds are “moderate,” whether they really are or not.
I have advocated supporting non-Islamist rebels in Syria since the beginning of the uprising. And it was a great idea—three years ago, when the rebellion was largely peaceful, liberal, and non-sectarian. But as many of us warned, the longer the conflict dragged on, the more it became a magnet for foreign jihadists. It was utterly predictable, and widely predicted, that if the US did not strongly support a non-Islamist opposition, then others in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, would send money and weapons to the jihadists, making them the best equipped, best organized factions in the opposition.
Almost exactly a year ago, President Obama himself guaranteed that outcome. Organizations like the Free Syrian Army had made a point of trying to remain moderate and even fought against jihadist rivals in the hope that if they did so, the Obama administration would eventually come to their rescue. We didn’t (despite repeatedly making noises about arming the rebels), and instead Obama cut a deal with the Assad regime, delivering a crushing blow to the very “moderates” Obama now says he’s going to support.
My point is not that the administration’s new strategy is inherently impossible or that we shouldn’t try it. We have to avoid the trap (or pose) of being so hawkish that you become a dove. There is a temptation to say: “I’d really like to fight this enemy, so long as we do it in the perfect, totally decisive way I imagine—but if not, then we’re better off staying home.” In this approach, if there is no unequivocally moderate Syrian opposition already in existence, ready, waiting, and militarily strong, then we should do nothing. But this was basically the Obama administration’s policy from the beginning of the Syrian revolt, and look where it has gotten us.
My point is that we have to recognize how difficult this strategy is. A moderate opposition to Assad cannot be assumed to exist ready-made, pure, and effective. If it does not exist, it will be necessary for us to create it. But this requires a degree of concrete involvement—and an honesty about confronting past errors and measuring our ongoing success—that I don’t think we can expect from this president or this administration.
Since the alternatives are worse, we have to support this effort and hope that rough experience and undeniable failure will eventually move the administration to adopt a more realistic strategy. Which, come to think of it, is how we got this new strategy in the first place.