ISIS: The Three Questions

To understand the war against ISIS, it is best to separate the discussion into three parts:

1. Is President Obama’s strategy logical?

2. Can Team Obama execute the strategy?

3. Can the American political class provide the long term support necessary?

1. Is President Obama’s strategy logical?

    In a nutshell, the strategy is to engage a broad coalition, rely primarily on indigenous ground forces in Iraq and Syria to do the heavy lifting, and support them with American (and other) airpower, munitions, logistics, training, and intelligence. Implicitly this assumes retention of the existing Iraq and Syria borders with varying levels of internal regional autonomy, some cooperation from the Iraqi government, and no active opposition from the Syrian government.

Before getting to specific responsibilities and contributions, the concept of a broad coalition is easy. Intensity of concern about ISIS has several levels – first the governments of Iraq and Syria themselves; next adjacent states that are directly threatened – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Lebanon; then the regional powers (Sunni or Shia) who do not want a rampaging jihadist neighbor – Egypt, Turkey, and Iran;  then the smaller regional players (Sunni or Shia) who fear instability – Qatar, Kuwait, the Emirates; then Russia which has its own Muslim problem; then the Europeans who have a history in the Middle East. One might expect that engagement – military, economic, political – would vary with proximity, but there are plenty of like-minded folks. Check.

In terms of numbers, there are more than enough local, battle hardened soldiers to take on the 30,000 ISIS fighters. Rough numbers include 270,000 in the Iraqi Army, some 550,000 Iraqi armed police and special forces, some 190,000 Iraqi Kurd peshmerga fighters, some 200,000 career Syrian Army soldiers, and tens of thousands of Syrian opposition fighters. All of these numbers are problematic, loyalties are frequently more to tribes and clans, and the Iraqi Army has been shown to be highly suspect; however, these are big numbers and the global arms merchants have had a booming market for decades. There is raw material to work with, and our military knows the territory and key military leaders in Iraq. Check.

American airpower, augmented by a few allies, would have free reign over Iraq from bases in Qatar and carriers in the Persian Gulf. NATO member Turkey has refused use of Incirlik airbase near the Syrian and Iraqi borders, but adequate options are available far beyond the current rate of three to five airstrikes per day. What is needed is coordination with ground forces or forward air controllers to identify and mark targets. Syria is more problematic with well equipped and trained air defense forces in place. Partial check.

2. Can Team Obama Execute the Strategy?

    The first requirement of leadership is knowing and being able to explain where you are going. Within the past few months President Obama has called ISIS the Junior Varsity, called the moderate Syrian opposition a bunch of farmers, and had a public dispute with his Joint Chiefs Chairman about whether there might be a need for US combat troops. No check.

A second requirement is to engender trust that you have a real commitment to the mission and to your partners. Playing golf 10 minutes after a national address about the beheading of an American hostage is jarring; renouncing use of American troops while asking others to step forward is a non-starter. More broadly, President Obama does not have any friendships to call upon in the Middle East – or anywhere in the world for that matter. Certainly not the Saudis; certainly not the Egyptians; certainly not the Turks or the Iranians;  certainly not the Israelis;  certainly not the Russians.  Each will act in their self interest with no reason to bend toward Obama. No check.

A third requirement is a sense of competence for the task at hand. Releasing five Taliban leaders for an Army deserter is a terrible precedent for a war which is bound to be marked by hostage taking. The recent admission that we had no strategy for combatting ISIS was unnecessary and harmful. Our stated objective initially was to contain and degrade rather than to defeat and destroy the enemy. Secretary of State Kerry’s back and forth on whether we are at war was troubling – we may not be, but ISIS has declared that they are. No check.

In fairness, a key element of Obama’s strategy is targeting of ISIS leadership, whether they be in Iraq or Syria, without the approval of the local governments. The Nobel Peace Prize winner has been consistent, and successful, in unilaterally using drones and aircraft to eliminate the leadership of jihadi groups in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia. In the nuance of Obamaspeak, CIA and Special Forces operatives don’t constitute “boots on the ground”.  ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is likely to join Osama bin Laden in short order. Check.

     3. Can the American political class provide the long term support necessary?

    While purists on the Left and Right have joined a few chattering opportunists to oppose the arming of moderate Syrian opposition forces, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, and the Republican establishment have played it straight in supporting the President’s request. Check.

More problematic is Obama’s contention that he does not need the approval of Congress for the sharp escalation of engagement in Iraq and Syria, relying on a 2001 Congressional authorization to pursue the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks – a total reversal of candidate Obama’s criticism of President Bush who did seek such Congressional approval for his war in Iraq. With 67% of the public favoring a strong response to ISIS after the beheading of two American hostages, the opportunity to rally bipartisan support for an extended campaign is at hand, but will apparently not be taken. No check.

And a word for the skeptics: President Obama has consistently put off the political pain of Obamacare until after elections;  he has put off the political pain of immigration reform until after the November election; he initially claimed to be infuriated by the IRS targeting political opponents, but let it die down; he promised an investigation of Benghazi which never happened; there is a very good chance that in Obama’s mind “this too shall pass.” In fact, this week he has started a war on Ebola.  No check.

What a legacy!


This week’s video is a short commerical from a small food store chain in Tenneessee.


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