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Obama’s Real ISIS Strategy: Reassure a Concerned Public

The Buzz

Anyone who tuned into President Obama’s address to the nation last night expecting to hear a detailed plan to defeat ISIS came away disappointed. The president spoke mostly in generalities and skirted tough questions. But laying out a detailed plan that would pass muster with experts wasn’t his primary purpose. Reassuring a public worried about the ISIS threat, and his response to it, was.

The one specific piece of news Obama announced was that 475 U.S. troops will head to Iraq to support and train Iraqi and Kurdish forces. He also said for the first time that “I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria.” He didn’t, however, elaborate on what that action might look like or what circumstances might trigger it.

Obama was also specific in describing who ISIS currently threatened: people in the Middle East, not Americans. He only granted that ISIS might become a threat to the United States “if left unchecked.”

That assessment puts Obama at odds with his critics. It also puts him at odds with his own advisers. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has called ISIS an imminent threat to every interest we have,” while Secretary of State John Kerry said it poses a severe threat.” But Obama’s assessment does reflect the judgment of the U.S. intelligence community.

Obama similarly disagreed with himself, not for the first time, on the powers of the presidency. As a senator he argued that presidents needed congressional authorization before using military force. In 2011 he waged war against Libya without going to Congress. A year ago he did an about face and asked Congress to authorize him to strike chemical weapons sites in Syria. Last night he only said he would “welcome congressional support” for his effort to stop ISIS. He said nothing about what he might do to encourage Congress to give him the support he says he wants.

Obama also left many obvious questions about his strategy unanswered. Why is the new Iraqi government likely to be a more effective partner than its predecessor, which allowed ISIS to conquer a third of the country? Who are the other members of the coalition America is leading and what will they do? Can the United States degrade ISIS without strengthening Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, who Obama has said must go? Have U.S. drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia, which the president held up as a model for attacking ISIS, been as successful as he suggests? And perhaps most important, what will success in the effort to degrade and defeat ISIS look like?

But Obama’s real audience was not the experts who are asking those questions today. It was the two out of three Americans who have come to doubt that he is up to the foreign policy challenges the United States now faces. They do not want another U.S. military intervention abroad, but they also worry that he has been too cautious in responding to a world that seems to be spinning out of control. Obama’s focus on reining in loose talk about the ISIS threat, ruling out the return of U.S. combat troops to Iraq, and stressing American leadership of a global coalition sought to quell the public’s dual fears that he is doing too little—or might do too much.

The question is whether Americans are still listening. Presidents in their sixth year seldom claim public attention in the way they did in their first. They have given too many speeches to move opinion by words alone. The public wants results.

Therein lies Obama’s fundamental problem. Good results could be hard to come by. ISIS became a threat because the very countries the United States needs to help defeat it are weak, ineffective, and (often) duplicitous. ISIS’s vulnerability to U.S. airpower won’t prevent it from using grisly spectacles like the recent beheadings of two American journalists to sow fear and mask its battlefield losses.

So as much as the president hopes to reassure Americans that he is meeting the ISIS challenge with “strength and resolve,” he could well discover, as did several of his predecessors, that events can be hard to tame, even for a leader of a superpower.

James M. Lindsay is Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR). This piece first appeared at CFR’s The Water’s Edge blog here.

Image: Office of the White House. 

TopicsIslamic State RegionsUnited States

A Scary Thought: A Global Thirty Years War

The Buzz

From 1618 to 1648 Europe was torn apart by a devastating and ruthless war. It was waged with fanaticism nourished by religious extremism absolving soldiers from atrocities because it was God’s will and done in God’s name. Out of this debacle came the Westphalian system giving rise to the nation-state.

Fundamentally the conflict was about who should have the right to define ethics, norms, values, and behavioral patterns in a Europe baffled after Martin Luther’s challenge of the Catholic Church’ and digesting the societal repercussions of the information revolution introduced by Gutenberg.

The current global picture resembles this picture in many ways--raising fears that we may be in for a reprise, one auguring the same degree of fanaticism with destructive effects multiplied by the sinister use of modern weaponry and technology.

Armed conflicts – observers and politicians shy away from using the word wars - no longer take place between nation-states. Instead, they are among people and within people taking no account of national borders and passports. They focus on who you are and people’s cultural identity. Since 1945 the world has grosso modo been reigned by an American value system. The international institutions projected American power and this went well because the rest of the world looked on the American model as successful and wanted to emulate it. The Americans themselves saw the model as the best one not only for them, but also for other countries and was willing to allocate a considerable share of US national income to ‘export’ the model. What is happening now is almost the opposite. A large number of people who felt neglected and slighted even degraded and ‘put in their place’ solely because they adhered to a culture out of tune with the American value system revolt in a violent and sometimes hateful way. They feel justified in administering the same bitter medicine to the US as they had to swallow – cultural revenge.     

The US and its allies react - predictably - within the existing power structure and paradigm classifying the armed conflicts as among nation-states following the age old rules for such conflicts. They do not seem to have analyzed the evolving picture and underlying reasons. Therefore it is fast becoming asymmetrical warfare. The US and its allies register some results on the ground – encouraging them to go on – but have not succeeded in rolling the decisive attacks on the American global system back; on the contrary the attacks, in some cases pinprick attacks, gather sympathy and support from more and more hitherto marginalized people around the globe.

The conflict in Ukraine is easier to read and interpret than the conflict in the Middle East. President Putin says what he means and means what he says--albeit not saying everything he means! He depicts himself as the protector or patron of all Russians inside and outside of Russia stretching out to the ethnic Russians and/or Russian speaking people living in areas that used to be republics in the Soviet Union before its dissolution in 1991. The argument runs like this: The ‘West’ has extended the boundaries and ‘robbed’ Russia of its rightful place among the super powers, forcing ‘Russians’ to fight for survival in other countries inside an unfriendly  system often run by the same people who the Soviet Union treated as minorities – an humiliation without precedent in Putin’s eyes.

Putin is convinced that value based behavior (culture) among ethnic Russians are congruous, forming a strong bond, and justifying violating international rules, laws, and agreements. The ‘West’ is clinging to the rule bases international system anchored in respect for borders, nation-states and commitments. These two views cannot be reconciled. This is not a conflict about power balance that fits the pattern of well-known behavior seen over decades yes centuries; it is completely different and cannot be solved by applying analyses and methods originating from power balance recipes.

The same phenomenon can be detected full blown in the Middle East. The rebels or whatever label they should be given has changed name several times. From ISLS (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant) to ISIS (Islamic State of Syria and Iraq) to IS (Islamic State). This is no coincidence. Originally IS may have seen itself operating inside a nation-state and maybe using the nation-state concept, but now IS are trans frontier possible seeing itself governing people from Central Asia to the Atlantic Ocean.

No attempt is made to take over nation-states like Syria, Iraq or Lebanon. The goal is to brush aside these nation-states’ political systems exploiting the vacuum to establish a state (not a nation-state) for believers, followers, and adherents.

The ‘West’ counteroffensive is rooted in military ideology and thinking going back to von Clausewitz. His philosophy died with the end of the cold war. Conflicts which we encounter now may still be ‘war is the continuation of politics with other means’, but the difference is that the West links it to nation-states’ politics while the opposing groups do not.

The decisive power parameter in today’s world is the ability to shape perceptions; define in the eyes of a large majority of people what is right or wrong, permissible or not permissible, and justified or not justified. In other words shape a value based system that attracts and appeal to a majority of people - occupy the moral high ground defined by yourself!

Military involvement in Ukraine and the Middle East is unavoidable albeit its character and size is open for debate. Military ‘progress’ is welcome, but will only bring the ‘West’ closer to victory if the population living where the fighting takes place perceive such steps as necessary and proportionate to the situation. Even more important for the final outcome is whether potential or existing followers of the rebels outside the region itself read military results as a set back or defeat for the course - the endeavor to change the value system - pursued by the rebels.

Military engagement must be linked to a value based strategy aiming at winning the world opinion and in particular Muslims inside and outside the region for a systematic roll back of IS. The organization must not be allowed to present itself as innocent victims of the mighty American military machine fighting against US abuse of its power, denigrating and defaming Islam or for that sake other religions or identities.  In the same way standing up to Russia in Ukraine only gives hope of success if the ‘West’ manages to convince the global opinion that Russia is the aggressor violating not only commitments, but also behavioral patterns without which a global system cannot survive.

An optimist would glimpse a successful counter offensive staged by the ‘West’ promising victory. A realist discovers a disturbing picture of a conflict getting out of control. A pessimist has an inkling of a value based conflict going global haunting our societies for decades – in the same way as the thirty years war (1618-1648) did; a confrontation or rather a fight literally speaking about who has the right to determine the ethics, values, and moral norms in the future. Such a conflict will be evil and brutal. Fought among people it will divide families and groups hitherto safe in the conviction of shared and common values, but discovering that this was not the case. Worst of all: A value based conflict allows persecution, cruelties, oppression, even mass murder excused by referring to the victim’s different opinions.

Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

Image: U.S. Army Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsUnited States

Obama Grasps for his Foreign Policy Strong Suit: It’s the Terrorists, Stupid!

The Buzz

Barack Obama has struggled to avoid his presidency being defined by foreign policy.  Events have not been kind to this ambition.  Now, as the United States finally prepares to ramp up its military campaign against the ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria, last night’s speech can be understood as a calculated attempt to control the way in which the president’s entire handling of foreign policy is perceived by the American people.

Since entering the White House, President Obama has walked a tightrope between needing to address emerging threats to U.S. and global security while still appearing to keep to his campaign-era promises of curtailing America’s overseas commitments.  The truth is that Obama would like foreign policy to be kept off the political agenda altogether, preferring instead to focus on the very real challenges that face the country in terms of its domestic politics, society and economy.  Yet no president can ignore major foreign policy crises altogether.

The pervasive fear that America will be “dragged into” something resembling a rekindled war effort in Iraq—Obama’s bête noire during the 2008 campaign—has been particularly anathema to the president’s agenda of focusing on the domestic side.  The challenge posed by the Islamic State, then, has been one of selecting an appropriate response and of packaging that response for domestic consumption.  What is the correct mix of resolve and restraint?  Can ISIS be defeated without upending Obama’s six-year battle to steer the U.S. away from costly foreign entanglements.  Last night, Obama revealed his long-awaited formula for action.

Essentially, Obama’s answer is to characterize his strategy for dealing with ISIS as part and parcel of a longstanding and successful counter-terrorism effort.  This will not be a new war or even an entirely new mission.  Obama began by invoking his administration’s killing of Osama Bin Laden, the most celebrated scalp of what used to be known as the Global War on Terror.  The effort against ISIS, the president reassured his audience, will be a stable-mate of that successful campaign against America’s most hated enemy—something Americans can have faith in and get behind—and will not resemble the “dumb war” against Saddam’s Iraq that many fear a repeat of.

Obama believes that counter-terrorism is his foreign policy strong suit.  Implicitly, perhaps, the president sought to contrast his boldness at “taking the fight” to terrorists over the past six years with his predecessor’s folly in invading Iraq.  Although he has overhauled the rhetoric surrounding it, Obama has always favored prioritizing the war on terror when it comes to foreign policy.  Keeping to form, Obama last night was careful to stress the threat posed by ISIS to the U.S. homeland and trumpeted his administration’s controversial policy of using targeted airstrikes (including drone attacks) in places such as Yemen and Somalia as the sort of tactics that would be used to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS.  In short, Obama offered his audience a theme of continuity and reassurance, not dramatic change or knee-jerk reaction.

The president knows that his Achilles heel would be the accusation that he is allowing the country to slide towards another major conventional war.  Being painted as pouring more U.S. troops into overseas combat zones would be fatal to Obama’s image as a president who prioritizes “national building here at home” over the kind of unpopular foreign wars that allowed him to get elected in the first place.  The president’s specific proposals for dealing with ISIS were thus laden with language aimed at neutralizing this concern: the U.S. will launch airstrikes, not ground offensives; ground troops will shrink from combat roles and will not be “dragged into” a ground war; ISIS will be deprived of oxygen through other remote mechanisms.

Still, Obama knows that any sustained military effort against ISIS—however qualified and no matter how large the international coalition—will provide fodder to his critics.  Hawks will accuse the president of “too little too late” while others will charge him with abandoning the pledge to reduce overseas commitments.  It remains to be seen whether Obama’s conspicuous attempt to rally Americans’ optimism about their country’s future—both at home and on the world stage—will be enough to shield him from such flak.  His insistence that “Americans are united in confronting” the Islamic State was surely as much wishful thinking as it was a rhetorical attempt to engineer broad support for his policies.

Obama has been forced to act against ISIS against his best laid plans.  For years, he sought to limit U.S. involvement in Syria, desperate to avoid becoming embroiled in that complex and bloody conflagration.  His desire to pull out of Iraq is well worn.  With the security situation in the region reaching boiling point, however, the president has had no option but to respond.  His solution has been to grasp for what he believes to be his foreign policy strong suit—the narrative of counter-terrorism and using targeted military strikes to protect the American people from harm.

There is a difference, though, between the past six years of counter-terrorism under Obama and the impending campaign against ISIS: whereas previous actions against terrorist groups in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere have tended to be covert or otherwise kept beneath the public’s radar, this new phase of warfare has been launched alongside an explicit plea for popular backing.  Should that support vanish—either now or in the future—then the whole edifice of Obama’s counter-terrorism foreign policy could be called into question.  The implications will be far-reaching, lasting well beyond the final two years of this administration.

Image: White House Flickr. 

TopicsIslamic State RegionsUnited States

What President Obama Didn’t Say In His ISIL Speech

The Buzz

President Barack Obama had a lot riding on his prime-time speech to the nation last night.  In addition to publicly revealing the anti-ISIL comprehensive counterterrorism policy that the administration has been talking about for the past week, the president needed to use his plumb spot on television to assure the American people that he understands what it will take to degrade and eventually defeat this terrorist organization.  For the political team at the White House, Obama’s address was also an opportunity to set the record straight on his previous comments (ISIL is a “manageable problem,” “we don’t have a strategy yet,” etc.), stop the bleeding in his poll numbers, and begin a counterattack to the persistent criticism that Republican lawmakers have hailed his way.

As a general matter, President Obama succeeded in most of these objectives (getting congressional Republicans to praise his policy is more than a long shot).  The four-step plan that the president outlined to the American people during his 15-minute address hit all the right notes and will most likely add some points to what has been a tumbling foreign policy approval rating. 

Expanding the scope and frequency of the U.S. air campaign against ISIL targets in Iraq; potentially engaging in airstrikes in Syria; increasing military and logistical support to the Iraqi army, the peshmerga, and the moderate Syrian opposition; stemming the flow of cash and foreign fighters to the ISIL brand; and continuing to meet the humanitarian needs of the people under ISIL’s thumb are all necessary and noble aspects of this comprehensive anti-ISIL plan.  So far, the combination of aiding Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground with coordinated U.S airstrikes on selected ISIL targets has proved to be effective in recapturing territory, and the president is reasonable to believe that this winning formula should be employed to other areas of Iraq. 

Yet just as President Obama may have buried some of the lingering doubts that have circulated across the country about his leadership as Commander-in-Chief, his speech opened up another set of questions that will ultimately make or break his policy against ISIL.

The speech, for instance, was high on the benefits of multilateralism and on the outright necessity of forging a deep and lasting global coalition against the ISIL terrorism threat.  But beyond explaining why other nation’s needed to get involved in the effort, the president was virtually silent on the details.  He talked about the United States being “joined by a broad coalition of partners,” but neglected to tell the American people who in fact is participating in this coalition and what each of these members will be doing in order to pull their own weight.  Nor did President Obama acknowledge whether or not this essential coalition was even formed yet.  The fact that Secretary of State John Kerry is trotting around the Middle East and appealing for assistance from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and the Gulf States is an indication that this “broad coalition of partners” is a work in progress.

President Obama reminded Americans that U.S. combat troops would not be redeployed back onto the battlefields of Iraq.  Yet the “combat troops” label is somewhat of a misnomer: the brave men and women of U.S. Special Operations Command and Joint Special Operations Command will once again be tapped by the administration to retrain and salvage what has essentially become a demoralized and split Iraqi army. 

“In addition to providing weapons, ammunition and equipment,” the White House said in a fact-sheet released shortly after the president’s speech, “U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) will train and advise Iraqi forces, including Kurdish forces, improving their ability to plan, lead and conduct operations against ISIL.”  Arming, training, and advising Iraqis however, is not as mundane as it sounds; there is a slight possibility that the training program may need to be ramped up as the operation proceeds.  U.S. personnel may also be asked to put themselves in riskier environments to ensure that the training and embedding mission is done successfully.  The president was explicit is saying that “there are risks involved,” but evaluating the degree of risk is just as important.

Finally, President Obama announced that the United States will be getting far more involved in Syria’s civil war—accelerating the U.S. train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian rebels who are fighting on two fronts (against ISIL and Bashar al-Assad) and whose capabilities pale in comparison to the Islamic State.  If Congress agrees to the president’s request, $500 million will be available for the Defense Department as seed-money to supplement the smaller training program that the Central Intelligence Agency has reportedly been running for over a year.  Yet the question must be asked: is it too late for U.S. assistance to make a difference?  The Free Syrian Army is perhaps at its most fragile point since Syria’s civil war began, and the moderates have been begging for heavy U.S. military equipment for years now.  Will $500 million be enough money, and if not, is the president willing to double down on his strategy and expend more taxpayer funds to improve its chances of success?

If it hasn’t already, the administration must answer all of these questions, both before and during the implementation of the counterterrorism strategy.  But for now, President Obama took the first big step: drawing up a blueprint for action and focusing the entire U.S. national security bureaucracy on the same objective.

Image: White House Flickr.     

TopicsISIS RegionsIraq

The Latest Cost of Islamophobia

Paul Pillar

Richard Cheney spoke to Republican Congressmen at the Capitol Hill Club the other day, giving them a sort of pep talk on the importance of maintaining a Cheneyite view of the world and not letting the guy in the White House be seen as taking the lead in confronting ISIS, the feared terrorist group of the moment. Mr. Cheney's remarks were not publicly reported but according to one of the Congressmen in attendance the former vice president “basically said that President Obama has actually done things that have supported the Muslim Brotherhood. But on the other hand the Muslim Brotherhood is really the beginnings of all the Islamist groups that we’re now dealing with; Hamas, ISIS – all of those groups.”

Leave aside for now the absence of any reason for anyone to listen to advice on such matters from one of the chief promoters of the war of choice that directly spawned ISIS. Leave aside also whether the description of the Obama administration's posture toward the Muslim Brotherhood resembles its actual policy. The administration has done little more than wrist-slapping in response to the Egyptian military regime's overthrow of a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood president and its subsequent brutal suppression of the group.

Focus instead on the lumping together into one undifferentiated stew of “all the Islamist groups.” Sadly, that primitive way of categorizing political actors in the Middle East is not limited to Mr. Cheney. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney did much the same thing. Partly this practice reflects the usual politically motivated games of association. When something as fearsome and salient as ISIS appears on the scene, expect that game to be played. Thus Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his government's efforts to justify the recent turkey shoot in the Gaza Strip, has been fervently trying to equate Hamas with ISIS. Similarly, those endlessly waving the bloody shirt of Benghazi are making sure we hear Benghazi and ISIS in the same sentence. But there is ignorance, and probably prejudice, that runs more deeply than such political tactics.

Political Islam is not an ideology. It is more a sort of vocabulary that has been adopted by a very wide range of groups, parties, and movements, ranging from the most moderate and democratic to the most violent and extreme. It is a vocabulary that embraces a very large part of the political discourse in the Middle East, a fact that reflects the belief of adherents to one of the world's major monotheistic religions that their religion provides meaning and guidance for most human affairs, public as well as private. That vocabulary will not go away, and there will always be a plethora of diverse groups that define themselves in terms of that vocabulary.

Failure to understand all that means a failure to understand much of what is going on in the Muslim world and especially in the Middle East, from politics in Egypt to internal conflict in Iraq. With ISIS rearing its ugly head, one particular consequence of this failure deserves to be highlighted: bashing and rejecting “all the Islamist groups”no matter how peaceful and moderate—and lumping them indiscriminately with the most horrid and extreme groups—aids the cause of the violent and extreme groups. Without accepted peaceful channels for anyone with a grievance and an Islamic bent to pursue his objectives, the violent channels appear more attractive. The bashing and rejection also lend credence directly to the extremists' message that violence is the only way in which Islamic values will ever be incorporated into public life.

Egypt is an ongoing demonstration of this reality. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was for many years remarkable in its forbearance in the face of being legally banned, rejecting the violent methods of radical Islamist groups such as the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and al-Gama'at al-Islamiyya. When it was finally given the chance to compete fully and openly, as well as peacefully, for political power, it did so. Now the al-Sisi regime's bludgeoning of the group has stimulated an upsurge in terrorist violence in Egypt, and most recently inroads in the country by ISIS.

The ISIS leadership no doubt welcomes the indiscriminate lumping of itself with everything Islamist, with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood being taken down in the process, as the al-Sisi regime is doing in Egypt and as Mr. Cheney was doing on Capitol Hill. The lumping reduces the competition ISIS would otherwise be getting from more moderate groups appealing to an Islamist clientele which would have good reason to be appalled by the methods of ISIS. The lumping also helps ISIS to pose as the energetic champion of all Muslims against the depredations of a supposedly anti-Muslim United States.

Crude, primitive rejection of everything Islamist has many unfortunate effects. Helping ISIS is one of the effects we ought to worry about at the moment.                          

TopicsTerrorism Egypt RegionsMiddle East

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