Obama's Avoidance Doctrine

"The time for an ostrich-like American posture has long since passed." 

Even as the Obama Administration continues to “weigh options,” the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham continue to press forward toward Baghdad. Moving with lightning speed—almost as fast as the American forces that invaded Iraq in 2003—the ISIS fighters have managed to take over much of Iraq’s Sunni heartland in less than a fortnight. Meanwhile, the administration dawdles, sending units to the Arabian Gulf as a “show of force,” when more than a “show” is required to have any hope of stopping the militants.

Mr. Obama has already made it clear that he will not authorize “boots on the ground.” That alone should encourage the ISIS fighters to press on, since Iraqi forces are melting away. Both Shi’a irregulars and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces will, of course, continue to battle the militants. They are likely to have far greater difficulty recovering territory in the Sunni areas than protecting those in the southern, predominantly Shi'a region that has not yet been lost.

The administration does seem to be moving toward authorizing a combination of air and drone strikes, as well as deploying Special Operations Forces, the latter ostensibly to protect American assets rather than to fight against ISIS. While air strikes might satisfy the demand by some in Congress that the United States “do something,” they are unlikely to stop the ISIS forces from advancing. To begin with, ISIS fighters are blending in with the local population, so that without the support of ground controllers—those boots on the ground that the administration has ruled out—the air strikes might not hit the right targets. For that reason, even targeted drone strikes may not avoid collateral damage, which would simply intensify Sunni support for the ISIS fighters.

Moreover, even massive strikes that do succeed in hitting their targets might not succeed in stopping ISIS from advancing. The North Vietnamese demonstrated that they were prepared to absorb large-scale bombing and sustain thousands of casualties while they pursued their ultimately successful goal of driving America out of Vietnam. Militant Islamists will be even less prone to give in as a result of air strikes, since they see themselves going directly to heaven if they die in battle.

To make matters worse, there are those in Iraq who are contemplating a push for replacing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with none other than Ahmed Chalabi, the snake-oil merchant who convinced Washington to invade Saddam’s Iraq in 2003. Chalabi has a long history of ties to Tehran; he may prove to be no less compliant with Tehran’s wishes than the sectarian and dictatorial Maliki. If that were not enough, the administration is also talking to Iran about some form of cooperation against the ISIS rebels; working with the Iranians will only strengthen their hand in Baghdad’s governing circles, whether Maliki remains in power or Chalabi supplants him.

If these developments were not enough evidence of the administration’s ham-handed approach to unfolding events in the region, there is its policy of continuing to keep itself at arm’s length from the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. The Kurds, who outnumber the population of several NATO members, are staunchly secular and antiterrorist. They are America’ s natural allies, and during the ‘90s, were the focus on American support while Saddam was in power. Yet the administration, which has long supported Nouri al-Maliki, despite his increasingly sectarian behavior, is still reluctant to exert itself on behalf of the Kurds, and in particular, help them to modernize their military equipment.

For their part, however, the Kurds, with their history of being betrayed by erstwhile supporters, are determined to control their own fate. Having seized Kirkuk, their historic capital, they will not relinquish it, and will press for independence if the Iraqi Sunni and Shi'a continue to wage war against each other. Should the Kurds declare independence, the Obama administration, which quickly recognized a far-less-stable South Sudan, should recognize the new Kurdish state. Given its willingness to work even with Iran in order to prop up the central government in Baghdad, however, it is unlikely to do so, prompting Kurdish resentment that will not easily be mollified.

While the prospects for an outcome in Iraq that would be favorable to American interests are becoming increasingly dim, in a sense, the administration is acting consistently with its national-security strategy. This strategy can best be described as one of avoidance and minimalism. Implicitly taking its inspiration from George Washington’s farewell address, the administration is doing its utmost to avoid being drawn into another conflict. At the same time, it is funding a minimalist defense posture that effectively limits its ability to conduct large scale operations simultaneously in regions where American interests could be threatened. Like Washington, the administration seeks to focus on nation-building at home. Unfortunately, it confronts a very different international reality from that which obtained in 1797. America has global political, economic and strategic interests that George Washington could hardly have begun to envisage.