President Obama apparently is holding firm to his decision to employ only limited military pressure on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The administration has slowly, even cautiously, increased both the U.S. military presence in Iraq (now about 1,000 personnel) and the number of airstrikes on ISIL targets. Even the rhetoric coming from government sources has been dialed back. The White House Press Secretary recently took a nuanced approach to the question of the threat ISIL posed to the United States only days after the Secretaries of State and Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had characterized ISIL as a mortal threat to their neighbors, the United States and the world. In his speech yesterday to the American Legion, President Obama once again made it clear he was not going to war against ISIL. He said that our airstrikes were intended to protect our diplomats and military personnel who, for some inexplicable reason, could not simply be evacuated from northern Iraq. In particular, the President absolutely rejected sending ground combat forces back into Iraq: “The answer is not to send in large-scale military deployments that overstretch our military, and lead to us occupying countries for a long period of time, and end up feeding extremism.”
No surprise, this approach has enraged his critics on the Right. More surprisingly, it has also energized a heretofore dormant sense of military zeal from many on the Left. Over the past few days, the opinion pages of the New York Times, Washington Post and similar dailies, as well as the usual news and blog sites have been filled with commentaries critical of the administration for its failures in the War on Terror and demanding strong military action against ISIL. Even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton thinks the administration needs to treat ISIL more seriously.
The trouble is, the President is right. He should not go to war against ISIL. And he certainly should not commit a substantial number of ground troops to any conflict against Islamic extremists.
But he is right for the wrong reasons. It is not that the military would be overstretched; what else does he plan to do with it, go to war against Russia over Ukraine? Nor is it that our presence in Iraq would feed violent extremism; ISIL exploded on the scene in Syria without any U.S. presence there and expanded into Iraq after we had withdrawn from that country. And it is not because our presence in Iraq would somehow detract from that country’s ability ultimately to provide for its own security; the United States has had forces in Europe and Northeast Asia for nearly seventy years in order to assist allies in building their own capacity for defense as well as to deter aggression.
The reason the President is right is because he has no strategy for dealing either with the immediate threat posed by ISIL nor with the problem of the collapse of order in the region. That is the main reason that the White House and the various senior leaders seem unable to sing from the same sheet of music. The administration cannot formulate a clear set of political objectives necessary in order to guide the use of American military power in the region. Even as we strike ISIL targets from the air, the Attorney General promises to bring the ISIL murderer of James Foley to justice. That is the height of inconsistency and policy incoherence.
Without a clear set of objectives there is no way to define the appropriate missions for the instruments of power, not just the military but the other departments of government. The administration cannot even get Treasury to cut off the flow of outside money to ISIL, Hamas and other terrorist groups. Nor is it willing to take the time needed in the region to ensure that whatever gains might be made on the ground by military action can be consolidated as we did in Europe and Korea after World War Two. So, playing “whack-a-mole” on individual ISIL trucks and mortar positions with fighter aircraft and drones makes sense.
In fact, the lack of a coherent strategy has created a situation in which the United States is on the verge of a de facto alliance to combat ISIL with its two greatest adversaries in the region, the Assad regime in Syria and Iran. This would be amusing were it not so tragic. The greatest beneficiary of ISIL’s successes is Iran. As a supporter of the Assad regime, Teheran benefits from that government’s need for continuing support against domestic insurgents. Iranian money, agents and militias were instrumental in pushing the erstwhile Maliki government into an extreme sectarian stance that alienated the Sunni population. A rump Iraqi state, one essentially reduced to the Shia-populated region in the south, will inevitably become an Iranian dependency. The withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel from Iraq only made Iran’s job easier.
Make no mistake, I believe that the failure to deal decisively and militarily with ISIL will result in Americans being killed, probably in the homeland. But since there is no evidence that the Obama Administration is up to the task of developing a coherent strategy for the region, potshotting at terrorists from the air is the best they can do.
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