I am, if you haven’t noticed, an instinctual Jacksonian (in the sense of Walter Russell Mead’s quadripartite characterization of American foreign policy types). My first reaction is to hit hard at those who confront the US or threaten American interests. ISIS is therefore a natural candidate for a good drubbing.
But more sober reflection (figuratively and literally!) leads me to conclude that a full-blooded response to ISIS is unwise, especially in Syria. For many reasons, the commitment that would be required to fully extirpate the organization is not worth the cost, and it’s better not to fight at all than to fight a half-assed or quarter-assed battle.
Our options now are extremely limited due to past choices, by Bush yes but primarily by Obama. ISIS was contained in Iraq before Obama declared victory and withdrew prematurely from any presence in Iraq. An early intervention in Syria might have achieved some result before Islamists came to dominate the opposition, which occurred in part as the result of Assad’s decision to unleash Islamists, including ISIS, to create an N-way war in Syria: it is not really correct to call most of the Islamists oppositionists, because they effectively served as Assad’s allies in the battle against the FSA and other opposition groups. (I suspect that Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, which basically left the place an Iranian satellite, and his demurring from attacking Assad, already an Iranian satellite, were driven in part by his pipe dream of a grand bargain with the ayatollahs.) Since 2011 we have suffered years of the locust, and last time I checked God isn’t promising to repay.
Now ISIS and other Islamist forces are well entrenched in Syria in Iraq. Rooting them out would require a robust ground campaign. We have no reliable allies in the region, and those who would have an interest in fighting ISIS-namely, the Iranians and Assad (who is in effect Iran’s main Arab ally/proxy) and Hezbollah-are really our foes in virtually every other way. Empowering them does not advance American interests, and would actually inflame the already fraught Sunni-Shia conflict. Obama’s statement that healing the Sunni-Shia rift is part of his strategy is utterly delusional. By comparison, perfecting cold fusion and inventing a practical warp drive are child’s play.
All this means that, with some local exceptions, we cannot depend on local proxies to provide the necessary ground forces. An American commitment would be expensive, extensive, and logistically challenging, especially given the unwillingness of Turkey to throw in. We would also face a tremendous challenge of knowing exactly who to fight, and we would no doubt be fighting not just ISIS and other Islamist groups, but Iran and Iranian proxies who would find this a great opportunity to take a few whacks at the Great Satan (just as happened in Iraq) and tie him down in a grueling war of attrition.
Which all means that perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a reversal of ISIS’s gains in 2014 in Iraq. This is probably achievable using a combination of American airpower and special forces in combination with Kurdish forces and Iraqi regulars, although rooting them out of Fallujah, Tikrit, and Ramadi and maybe Mosul is probably beyond the capability of the Iraqis. Air power can offset myriad weaknesses, but it can’t work miracles.
Once that is accomplished, a reduced but persistent presence can contain ISIS in Iraq, while Syria remains embroiled in an N-way standoff. (I say N-way because the non-Assad forces are fissiparous, to say the least. There are literally hundreds of groups.) A defeat of Assad would lead to something like Libya, most likely. Syria, in other words, is beyond human help: it’s fate is a choice among horrors.
From a purely geopolitical perspective, this would serve American interests. Iraq would not fall under the thrall of Sunni head choppers. Iran would not be further empowered. The Gulf states would be less threatened, though they will continue their duplicitous, perfidious ways (Qatar especially). The ISIS terror threat to the US and the West more broadly can be addressed through the same means we have used to combat Al Qaeda for the past 13 years.
Not a they lived happily ever after outcome, by any means, but better than some of the choices on the menu.
I also shudder at the prospect of the Anti-Jackson commander in chief leading a campaign. An extended military action of the type the Pentagon would consider necessary is antithetical to every fiber in his being. It is obvious that he has no appetite for the fight, and has a predilection for limited measures (drone strikes aimed at killing terrorist leaders, the odd special forces raid) that have no strategic purpose or effect. War under such unwilling and uncertain leadership would be a pointless expenditure of American lives and treasure.
Partial rollback and containment of ISIS is good enough, and does not tie down the US in a costly and divisive struggle that is peripheral to its core interests. Russia and China are far more pressing long-term problems, and another war of attrition in the Arabian snake pit is a distraction from dealing with those problems.
Alas, Obama is disinterested in those issues as well. He basically threw the Ukrainians to the Russian wolves last week:
Expressing confidence that the United States was on “the right side of history” in this battle, Mr. Obama said the nation would also resist Russia’s incursions in Ukraine, even though he noted that the United States has very little trade with Ukraine and “geopolitically, what happens in Ukraine doesn’t pose a great threat to us.”
Again with the hands-off reliance on some impersonal historical force to make things right. Mentioning trade first is rather bizarre, and the cluelessness of the last statement is mind boggling. You’d think that a challenge to both the entire post-Cold War settlement in Europe and to the principles of the post-WWII settlement (not to mention the entire post-Westphalian principles) like that which Putin is posing in Ukraine would be a matter of some geopolitical importance. It has implications far beyond Donbas-the Chinese are watching with great interest, for example. But the return of the 1930s doesn’t bother our Barry.
The Poles and Balts and Nordics are probably losing their water right now after having read Obama’s “what, me worry” approach to Ukraine and Putin, especially given the jarring contrast with Obama’s remarks in Tallinn before the Nato summit in Wales: Obama’s credibility is already shot, and the contrast between his indifference to the broader implications of Putin’s actions in Ukraine and his pledge to defend all Nato countries will only pump in another couple of bullets. Putin will no doubt take this as an invitation to push things even more.
Obama has company in selling out Ukraine. Explicitly deferring to Putin’s anger about its effects on the Russian economy, EU put the Association Agreement with Ukraine on hold. Don’t want to provoke the old boy, you know.
But as is always the case, immediately after the capitulation, fighting swelled in Donetsk in spite of the cease-fire. Putin pockets every concession, then escalates. He doesn’t need external provocations. He is self-provoking, especially when he sees that his actions will meet no serious resistance.
The anti-Jacksonian approach of Obama and the Europeans, which eschews force and bleats about “no military solutions” and the need to rely on diplomacy alone is responsible for the myriad messes that now confront us. But bullheaded Jacksonian pugnacity isn’t warranted either. A prudent choice of battles, and the means to fight those battles, is needed. Use enough force to beat back and contain ISIS in Iraq. Turn attention to the true strategic challenges in eastern Europe and Asia, starting with arming Ukraine and supporting it economically and politically, deploying more robust Nato forces east of the Elbe, and committing to long-term undermining of Russian military capabilities through sanctions and other economic measures (e.g., releases from the SPR) that weaken the economic props for its ambitious rearmament program. And for God’s sake don’t advertise weakness and appeasement to people like Putin.
Is that too much to ask? Alas, the answer is probably yes. So things will likely get worse before they get better, and even when they get better they won’t be as good as they were in 2013.
Update: The Kagans bravely try to craft a strategy to deal with ISIS, in Syria as well as Iraq. It seems like a poker strategy based on repeatedly drawing inside straights. Not impossible, but not bloody likely. I think the diagnosis of the current situation is pretty on target, and aligns with my years of the locust take. But getting Sunnis who don’t trust us to bear the brunt of fighting other Sunnis which necessitates simultaneously sidelining Shias (which is required to get the Sunnis to work with us) seems beyond the ability of any American administration, especially this one, due to its demonstrated lack of competence, the fact that Sunnis in Iraq believe it betrayed them after their previous efforts in the Anbar Awakening by abandoning them to a Shia government in Baghdad, and the fact that it is widely suspected, with considerable justice, of harboring an intense desire of doing a deal with Iran.
The Underwear Gnome business strategy has a better chance of working than this.