Streetwise Professor

September 15, 2014

Even Jacksonians Pick Their Battles

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 5:07 am

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.

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  1. Before picking and choosing battles, it helps to gain an understanding of the region – which no administration has bothered to do. Simply talking about Sunni vs Shia creates the illusion that there is just one religious split, which is incorrect. ISIS and AQ subscribe to Salafi doctrines within the Hanbali school of Sunni jurisprudence. The Iranian Grand Ayatollahs are twelver Shia and subscribe to the Usuli doctrines of taqlid and ijtihad. Most Muslims fall outside of both groups, and many of those who are Salafi are unwilling to use force to advance these doctrines oover Muslims who disagree. The militant Salafi believe they are fighting over the most fundamental doctrine of the faith – “there is no god but God”. They object in particular to the common practice of decorating tombs. They see this as an act of idolatry that elevates the bones of dead men to the level of God. The Grand Ayatollahs, on the other hand, maintain some of the most opulent shrines over the tombs of dead Alid saints in both Iran and Iraq. Both denominations tend to divide the world into “us against them” groups, so the average Muslim has to worry that the Salafi will kill them for not being sufficiently pure and the Twelvers will kill them just to be on the safe side.

    Into this mess comes the USA to make everything okay. All to often, we end up with the sort of ignorant response I write about here .

    Comment by Ben — September 15, 2014 @ 6:24 am

  2. @SWP . nuanced understanding (picking battles in this case) comes from hard won experience, age, and historical knowledge. Congrats to you, changing views and evolving in old age.

    Comment by scott — September 15, 2014 @ 7:48 am

  3. Published on September 14, 2014 Walter Russell Mead
    The President Pushes Back

    President Obama’s critics seem to be getting under his skin with their criticisms. But it appears the President doesn’t fully grasp the substance of his critics’ complaints about his leadership.

    The New York Times has a fascinating piece by Peter Baker about a series of off-the-record dinners President Obama has had recently with Washington foreign policy insiders.

    Some of the guests have been indiscreet enough to share the President’s musings with the press, but it’s hard to blame them. Presumably the White House wanted to get a message out about what the President is thinking. This wasn’t an intelligence briefing and it wasn’t a meeting of the war cabinet, and under the circumstances, the White House probably expected details of the dinner to leak and welcomed the chance to make some points, first to the high level guests and then through them to the nation at large.

    Most substantively, President Obama appears to be warning Syria’s Assad in no uncertain terms that if Syria fires on U.S. warplanes conducting strikes, the United States will crush his air defenses and leave him so weakened that his overthrow will be certain. That is a big deal; the legal position may be a bit dicey, but Obama is asserting the right of U.S. warplanes to conduct any and all operations they wish anywhere over Syrian territory. That is an ultimatum Dick Cheney could love, but it is also another red line drawn in the sands of the Middle East. As with all red lines, it gives the other side power; it is up to Assad rather than Obama now whether the war in Syria gets much bigger than originally planned.

    The other piece of hard news emerging from the dinners was that President Obama called the President of France a liar. Hollande claims France doesn’t ransom captives, Obama allegedly said, but he lies—France does in fact pay ransom. (France is not alone; millions for tribute, not one red cent for defense seems to sum up where many European countries are headed these days.) Again, saying nasty things about French politicians sounds more like something that would come out of W’s White House in that hyperactive first term than one might expect from Mr. Cool. But there it is.

    Beyond that, two points from the Baker story seem particularly striking. The first is that if the President’s dinner guests are understanding him correctly, the critics really seem to be getting under his skin. As Baker writes,

    It was clear to the guests how aware Mr. Obama was of the critics who have charged him with demonstrating a lack of leadership. He brought up the criticism more than once with an edge of resentment in his voice.

    “He’s definitely feeling it,” said one guest. At one point, Mr. Obama noted acidly that President Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon only to have hundreds of them killed in a terrorist attack because of terrible planning, and then withdrew the remaining ones, leaving behind a civil war that lasted years. But Reagan, he noted, is hailed as a titan striding the earth.

    One can sympathize with the President’s frustration, but incidents like the Marine disaster in Lebanon and Iran-Contra were dwarfed by Reagan’s historic accomplishment in putting the Soviet Union on course to destroy itself, ending a forty year global conflict that had tested the United States to its limits. President Obama still has two years on his watch; if he delivers like Reagan he will be remembered like Reagan, and frankly I hope for all our sakes that that is what happens.

    But the second and more striking point is that while the critics are definitely getting under the President’s skin, he doesn’t yet seem to have figured out exactly why criticisms of his leadership are resonating so broadly. Again, from Baker:

    “Oh, it’s a shame when you have a wan, diffident, professorial president with no foreign policy other than ‘don’t do stupid things,’ ” guests recalled him saying, sarcastically imitating his adversaries. “I do not make apologies for being careful in these areas, even if it doesn’t make for good theater.”

    This is the narrative the President seems to be clinging to (bitterly, judging from some of the comments): the critics are against him because he isn’t a hot head. He doesn’t jump in with both feet; he measures twice and cuts once. He sees the complexities and wrestles with them, and then does the best thing for the country even if some people think he is moving too slowly. Partisan opponents and superficial critics mistake his Olympian calm, his deliberative conduct of foreign policy for wimpishness. He offers good policy; they boo him because they want theater.

    If only this were true.

    All presidents have a lot of critics, and no doubt some of President Obama’s critics are unfairly hammering him. But that’s hardly the main thrust of the serious critiques that, one would hope, he would be thinking about and responding to.

    The real criticism of the President isn’t that his foreign policy is too deliberative, it is that his deliberations don’t seem to end with policies that, well, work. He put a lot of thought and effort into the reset with Russia; the results are what we see. His carefully considered and cool-headed search for moderate Islamists and attempts to build relationships with them didn’t end well in either Turkey or Egypt, and it is hard to see what it accomplished. His humanitarian intervention in Libya left that country worse off than he found it, and shows very little evidence of foresight or careful thinking on his part. His peacemaking diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinians has been conspicuously less successful than the efforts of most of his predecessors, and the most recent Gaza debacle further weakened our damaged standing in the region. Nobody seems to be hailing his Afghan strategy as a masterpiece, and few think he handled Iraq particularly well. Old allies in Europe, the Middle East and Asia seem to doubt his resolve, in six years he doesn’t seem to have developed particularly close or effective relationships with other world leaders, and more and more observers at home and abroad believe that he has lost control of events.

    None of this is about pace or style. If President Obama were getting good results and his strategies seemed to be working, nobody would be complaining about how long it took him to make up his mind, or criticizing him for choosing complicated and subtle approaches.

    If he were twice as slow and twice as nuanced in his approach to key issues, the American people would be cheering him on and the delirious think tank illuminati would be dancing before him and scattering rose petals beneath his triumphant feet—if his policies were working. It’s the impression of confusion, failure and retreat, not impatience with deliberation and nuance, that is undermining President Obama’s standing in the country and the world and causing Democratic strategists to rip out their hair.

    There is some evidence from the Baker piece that the President’s deepest response to criticism is to say that results are impossible — that Abraham Lincoln and George Washington combined couldn’t handle the problems now troubling the world. It is true that some of the problems he faces are intractable, and true, also, that some of his critics are simply blaming him for things that no one can control. And the President also has a point that President Bush did not exactly leave the world in an idyllic place.

    Even so, “No, we can’t” was not the slogan President Obama ran on back in 2008. The oceans were going to begin to recede, Guantanamo would close, and ‘smart diplomacy’ was going to heal the world. He didn’t base his 2012 re-election campaign on the idea that the world was a mess and that no one can really deal with it. He claimed to have dealt effectively with the jihadis, leaving only remnants and the JV. Otherwise, things were good. Governor Romney was called an alarmist for warning that the reset was at best cosmetic and that American foreign policy was in trouble.

    President Obama isn’t in trouble because he moves cautiously. President Obama isn’t in trouble because he prefers cool reason to hot passion when it comes to making big foreign policy moves. President Obama isn’t in trouble because his decisions are grounded in the complexities of the real world. President Obama is in trouble because fewer and fewer people at home or abroad think that the policies he chooses can bring about the ends he seeks.

    It is a substance issue, not a style problem, and it is grounded in observation and reason, not passion and personal hostility. Though some of his critics are overheated, and some no doubt are more motivated by partisanship than anything else, at its core the increasingly widespread negative assessment of the President’s foreign policy is a cool judgment and not a hot one.

    All that said, the President isn’t totally wrong to feel that the objections to his foreign policy approach have a style-based component. What the critics (the ones most worth listening to, anyway) are pointing toward is a blind spot in the President’s Spock-like, Vulcan approach to the international situation. President Obama’s apparent difficulty in grasping the significant and often critical role elements like emotion, excitement and momentum play in world politics may be one of the reasons why his policies so consistently fall short of his goals. Again, from the reports on his dinner time conversation in the Baker piece:

    But the president said he had already been headed toward a military response before the men’s deaths. He added that ISIS had made a major strategic error by killing them because the anger it generated resulted in the American public’s quickly backing military action.

    If he had been “an adviser to ISIS,” Mr. Obama added, he would not have killed the hostages but released them and pinned notes on their chests saying, “Stay out of here; this is none of your business.” Such a move, he speculated, might have undercut support for military intervention.

    It is probably true that a lower profile by ISIS would have made it more difficult to win support for airstrikes in the United States and around the world, but that’s hardly the point. ISIS is a master of the pornography of politics and the pornography of perverted religion: slave girls, heads on spikes, executions uploaded to the internet, naked defiance in the face of its enemies. ISIS isn’t trying to win a conventional geopolitical chess match, it wants to electrify millions of potential supporters and change the nature of the game. The execution of American hostages succeeded brilliantly, from an ISIS point of view. It has made President Obama look weak, forced him to change his entire Middle East policy and brought the jihadi movement back into the world spotlight. The politics of spectacle has eclipsed Al-Qaeda, weakened Assad’s position, drawn the awe and admiration of jihadi wanna-bes and funders, and elevated 30,000 thugs and nutjobs to a major force in global events. Yes, that elevation carries with it the risk of serious pushback and even conventional military defeat, but jihadi ideology has benefited enormously from what ISIS has accomplished so far. ISIS still isn’t going to conquer the world, but radical Islam is closer than ever to launching the clash of civilizations of which bin Laden dreamed.

    ISIS has much less money that President Obama does, many fewer fighters, much less equipment and in every other conventional measure of power it is a pipsqueak compared to the Leader of the Free World. But who is acting, and who is reacting? Who is dancing to whose tune?

    ISIS doesn’t need President Obama’s advice; it clearly knows its job better than he does. The same thing is true of Putin; the Russian president has a much weaker hand, objectively speaking, than President Obama, but in part because President Putin understands the importance of spectacle and momentum in politics, he has been able to run rings around the Vulcan-in-Chief.

    Drama and spectacle are among the assets that successful world leaders employ; that doesn’t mean that those leaders are hotheaded or stupid. The impression, hopefully inaccurate, that the Baker piece gives us is of a president who knows things aren’t working but doesn’t think he has anything to learn. If that is really where this president is, he and we have some hard times ahead.

    Comment by Peter M Todebush — September 15, 2014 @ 8:46 am


    Excellent comments by Illarionov on “no military solution” et al.

    Comment by Ivan — September 15, 2014 @ 4:21 pm

  5. President Poroshenko on a discussion about the Ukrainian security services intelligence gathering ability was asked, “If this conflict spreads further and President Poroshenko was aware of a nuclear strike against America, would he notify President Obama of an immenant nuclear strike?”
    President Proshenko resonded and said, “America is not a major trading partner with Ukraine and it would not be in our geopolitical interest to interfere”

    Comment by traveler — September 16, 2014 @ 5:27 pm

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