Streetwise Professor

August 10, 2014

The Obama Fram Oil Filter Foreign Policy: We’re Paying Later, and a Lot More

Filed under: History,Military,Politics — The Professor @ 5:02 pm

Confronted by a looming humanitarian catastrophe at Mt. Sinjar, Obama finally ordered airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL, and also mounted a campaign to provide desperately needed supplies to the Yazidis who fled to the mountain before the ISIS onslaught.

This initial set of strikes seems to have a very limited objective: they can best be described as a limited tank plinking campaign intended to halt the ISIS attack on the Kurds around Erbil. The US is using F/A-18s from the  George Bush (CVN77), deployed in ones-eys and twos-eys to take out an artillery piece here, and a vehicle there. It will give the Kurds some breathing room, and permit them to make limited counterattacks.  But as of yet, it appears that the airstrikes are not intended to deliver a body blow to ISIS. The objectives appear to be narrowly tactical, rather than operational.

Given the nature of ISIS, the humanitarian crisis was inevitable, and eminently predictable. Indeed, ISIS is a rolling bacchanal of head chopping, crucifixion, mass execution, and rape. Wherever this scourge lands, a humanitarian crisis follows.

Obama infamously labeled ISIS the “junior varsity” in a January interview. I wonder if he still considers that description operative, or regrets that he made it. I note that in contrast to Obama’s disparaging remark, only Friday a “senior administration official” said that in its recent attacks, ISIS has demonstrated “tremendous military proficiency.” Either ISIS has navigated a very steep learning curve, or Obama was spewing garbage  7 months ago. Not hard to figure out which is true, especially if you were paying attention to ISIS in Syria and Iraq last year and early this year.

Obama’s attitude, and his preternatural predisposition to avoid any involvement in Iraq, led him to stand aloof when ISIS scored major breakthroughs in Iraq two months ago, and threatened to capture Baghdad. The inaction then, and in the interim, laid the foundation for what is transpiring outside Erbil today. Obama’s consistent Fram Oil Filter foreign policy procrastination (“you can pay me now, or you can pay me later”) only deferred the necessity of military action, and allowed ISIS to become stronger in the meantime.

Obama’s rationale for letting ISIS run amok is a pedantic one. He is (in some ways understandably) frustrated at the inability of Iraq to form a more inclusive government, and at the dysfunctional Maliki government, and refuses to be “Maliki’s artillery”. That is, he is withholding US military action against ISIS in order to force a change of government in Baghdad. Apparently only when Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds hold hands and sing Kumbaya will Obama relent.

In the meantime, vast swathes of Iraq are getting a new government. An ISIS government that rules by terror and very credibly threatens genocide. Obama’s pickiness about what he considers to be acceptable Iraqi government has given ISIS an open field to consolidate its hold over the regions that it has conquered, and to push for further conquests.

To the surprise of the administration, that push has been directed at the Kurds instead of Baghdad. The Kurdish Peshmerga, though possessing a reputation for being far more stalwart fighters than the Iraqi Army rabble that disintegrated on contact with ISIS, was sent reeling. It is uncertain whether this indicates that the Peshmerga was overrated, or underarmed. It is certainly the case that it is outgunned by ISIS, so the latter is a reasonable inference.

The outgunning of the Kurds is also the result of a conscious administration decision. The Kurds have been pleading for arms and ammunition, but the administration has demurred. The reason is rather astounding, especially in light of Obama’s stated refusal to aid the Iraqi central government. In refusing to help the Kurds, Obama has deferred to the sensitivities of the very Maliki government that he despises: he does not want to appear to be advancing Kurdish independence, which would outrage Baghdad.

So on the one hand, Obama doesn’t want to help the Iraqi central government fight ISIS because he thinks that government is dysfunctional and must change fundamentally, and in particular must become more inclusive, before it deserve US backing. On the other hand, Obama doesn’t want to help the Kurds fight ISIS because he thinks that would enable the Kurds to break free of the said same dysfunctional central government.

The only way to square these decisions is to conclude that Obama didn’t want to help to fight ISIS, period.

But now his hand has been forced by the prospect of the slaughter of 50,000 Yazidis. I suspect that Obama will only exert enough force to prevent that, and stabilize the situation in the north of Iraq. He will not deal ISIS a blow sufficiently stunning to permit the Iraqi Army, or the Kurds, or both, to defeat the head chopping lunatics. This will provide yet another illustration of the adage (attributed to Macauley and James Arbothnot Fisher) that moderation in war is imbecility.

Obama has repeatedly refused to pay anything now in Iraq. As a result, many have paid a big price later. A price measured in severed heads, mass graves, and systematic rape.

The most realistic alternative right now is to be the Kurds’ artillery, and pound ISIS from the air in a serious way, while providing the arms, intelligence, and logistic support that will permit the Kurds to attack them on the ground. In so doing, Obama will be rebuking himself for his past words and actions (or, more accurately, inactions) in Iraq. And that may be the biggest obstacle to his doing the right thing.

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  1. Fascinating that it took something under the aegis of the R2P mission to get the administration involved, vice a more conventional “ISIS is a threat to the US”.

    Comment by Blackshoe — August 10, 2014 @ 7:54 pm

  2. @Blackshoe. Isn’t it. The admin is still pushing back on the idea that ISIS is a threat to the US. When asked about whether Obama had erred calling ISIS the JV, Obama’s head flack Josh Earnest (seriously, could you make up that name?) babbled on and on about how tough Obama had been against groups that did threaten the US. He specifically mentioned AQAP, which is living in caves in fricking Yemen. Yeah, they launch underwear bombers, but seriously. But it has been evident from day 1 that they view ISIS as being purely a “regional” and “sectarian” threat, not a threat to the US.

    We couldn’t be in better hands, could we?

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 10, 2014 @ 10:33 pm

  3. I think Obama is terrified of upsetting the Turks, who have just returned an Islamist president to office with extended powers. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Turks started demanding US concessions on Israel in return for “allowing” the US to arm the Kurds.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 11, 2014 @ 2:05 am

  4. Professor, aren’t these guys the same chaps you advocated for supporting in Syria (i.e. the rebels against Assad)? Mind you, they do not only control large parts of Iraq, but Syria as well…

    Comment by Viennacapitalist — August 11, 2014 @ 2:11 am

  5. ISIS are not the rebels who were originally fighting Assad. Indeed. ISIS have made a point of killing the original rebels in their early campaigns.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 11, 2014 @ 6:56 am

  6. @ Tim,
    although the group was founded earlier, its rapid growth is due to participation in the Syrian war (
    And what do you mean by “original rebels”? Who are these? How do you distinguish that? Wasn’t ISIS there from the beginning?
    rebel factions killing each other is a normal thing under these circumstances, i.e. every warlord tries to get as many spoils as possible-very common in the history of mankind. In short: this fact doesnt prove anything. Most of the rebel factions are at war with each other…thats the incentive their leaders have..
    But even if your statement were true: do you really think, that it is possible for the US government to arm the “right” rebels, without strengthening undesired elements?

    Comment by Viennacapitalist — August 11, 2014 @ 7:57 am

  7. According to a Syrian I work with, which is as much a reliable source as the NYT as far as I am concerned, ISIS did not form until much later in the Syrian civil war. At the beginning, the rebels composed mainly of Syrians fed up with Assad’s rule, the foreign and foreign-backed jihadists did not arrive until later. There is even speculation that Assad was involved with the formation of ISIS, supposedly to demonstrate the war was not a rebellion against his rule but an all-out civil war between opposing factions. Whatever the truth, the war started out as a rebellion against Assad, and this far ISIS have not really challenged Assad or his forces.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 11, 2014 @ 8:49 am

  8. Regarding intervention by the west, I know there were one or two “least worst” options in Syria, none of them particularly good, but both better than what we have now. I don’t know the details though, this was passed to me by somebody who works in the British government.

    Comment by Tim Newman — August 11, 2014 @ 8:51 am

  9. @ Tim
    I can tell you from own personal experience that listening to people involved in a war is not really a reliable source of information, personal involvement necessarily makes you less objective (I do not read the NYT).
    And not many people believe that western intervention has a good track record…

    Comment by Viennacapitalist — August 11, 2014 @ 10:00 am

  10. @Viennacapitalist: no, not these guys. The general was to arm some of the genuine moderates in the Syrian Opposition. Of course, we ended up not doing that, which led to guys like ISIS and al-Nursa Front becoming more powerful (since they were getting armed) and destroying most of the moderates, thus furthering their power.

    Comment by Blackshoe — August 11, 2014 @ 10:04 am

  11. I hate to say it but this all looks like a great distraction from what really is a problem number 1 for the United States today: Ukraine. Not the fighting in Ukraine per se, but the open refusal of Russia to follow the established rules of the international order and practically open calls in Russia to war.

    This is a big deal. This has to be the priority number one. This has to be dealt with swiftly and forcefully.

    Comment by LL — August 11, 2014 @ 11:05 am

  12. What Obama doesn’t realize in that in the real world beyond American newsrooms, everyone else considers Obama to be the JV equivalent. Actually, he is probably the guy who didn’t make the JV, but whose parents yelled the loudest and contributed to the sports teams so the coach was told he had to take the player.

    Obama’s MO in foreign policy was to ignore anything that didn’t fit his paradigm, and anytime there was something that caused criticism in the newspaper, to put some band aid on the problem in the hope it would silence the criticism. His only concern was that he had to look for good for domestic political considerations. There was never any strategy or coherent goal. All that did was enable Obama to kick the can down the road. Six years after he begun the process, all the chickens have come home to roost. All the problems he didn’t want to deal with it have gotten so huge he has to deal with them.

    Viennacapitalist – The entire point of people earlier stating to arm the Syrian rebels was to prevent a group like ISIS from taking hold. It’s like the Spanish Civil War. France and Britain didn’t support the Republicans, so the Soviet Union was able to drive its support to the Spanish Communists who grew stronger and eventually started killing its own “allies” so that only the Communists could gain power in Spain. With the Western powers not supporting the Syrian moderates, it allowed the radical Islamists to become the dominant rebel group. It is a mistake to see such conflicts only as two-sided; pro-Assad and anti-Assad. In reality, both sides are coalitions (although Assad is more dominant, organized, and in control of his side) of multiple factions. Assad used ISIS to destroy the more moderate rebels since he knew they represented the real threat – they were the only ones the West would be willing to support, and if only ISIS remained, he could destroy them at leisure. Whether that is actually true will remain to be seen as ISIS is now concentrating on fighting Assad.

    Comment by Chris — August 11, 2014 @ 11:19 am

  13. @viennacapitalist-If you’ve been following along at home, you will recognize that Assad has helped ISIS in many ways. The regime did not attack ISIS. The regime released many Islamists from prison so they could join ISIS. Assad, either because of a hunch or a deal, believed that ISIS would attack other opposition groups. And he was right.

    If the other groups had been supported, especially when Assad was tottering and on the verge of collapse, ISIS would not have become what it is.

    Not that the victors would have been Jeffersonians. But they would not have been as bad, or as ambitious, as ISIS.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — August 11, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

  14. @ Chris
    agree with you that this is not simply two-sided. conflicts in this region have complex reasons, which is exactly why I hold it difficult to decide correctly from the outside who the bad and the good guys are. As I said, the track record (Lybia, Iraq, Afghanistan a.s.o.) leaves much to be desired in this respect…
    Your furthermore assume, as does the professor, that a critical mass of moderate opposition members exists. I am not so sure. After all, the moderate Allawites (most liberal form of Islam) and the christian minorities side with Assad…(this should tell us something)

    @ the Professor
    I would say he has made a big mistake…
    Just to complete the picture:
    * also Saudi Arabia (US ally) has released prisoners to fight Assad.
    * you forget to mention that Turkey (US ally) has supported the influx of radical foreigners that have flocked to Syria and Iraq..
    Stories in Europe abound, about how muslim teenagers go to fight in Syria and Iraq (The other day two 16 year old girls(!) from Vienna disapeared to Syria via Turkey(whose officials found nothing strange about teenage girls heading to Syria) – in my opinion this has supported ISIS by just as much as the madmen released from prison

    Comment by Viennacapitalist — August 12, 2014 @ 2:18 am

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