Foreign-policy experts and pundits in Washington are up in arms, ready to go to war—that is, send someone else to fight in the Middle East—and cannot believe that President Obama is resisting their call to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) by expanding U.S. airstrikes against ISIS targets from Iraq to Syria.
Even worse from the perspective of the warmongers has been Obama’s admission that he doesn’t even have a plan. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he said during a White House news conference, in what was seen as a message of sorts to the op-ed writers, cable-news talking heads, and blogosphere warriors.
“Folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at,” he said. “The suggestions seems to have been we’re about to go full-scale on some elaborate strategy for defeating ISIS and the suggestion has been we’ll start moving forward imminently and somehow with Congress still out of town, they’ll be left in the dark. That’s not going to happen.” Ouch!
As expected, the response to the president’s comments from Washington’s gung-ho press has been devastating, ranging from the suggestions that Obama made a “gaffe” to accusations that he was failing to project leadership and stand up to America’s enemies in the aftermath of the horrific beheading of American journalist James Foley by ISIS.
The Washington Post‘s veteran national security correspondent Karen DeYoung, a long-time proponent of U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war, published a front-page story that quoted numerous unnamed sources in Washington and the Middle East bashing Obama for his no-strategy comments and calling on Washington to go to war.
“When a superpower, the superpower, is reluctant in developing policy, it’s not only about leadership, it’s about having a coherent approach to crises,” DeYoung quoted a Middle Eastern official as saying, before turning to another who stated that, “The ball is in the U.S. court.”
In case you were wondering why the proverbial ball was not in the courts of such regional military powers as happen to be the neighbors of Iraq and Syria, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, DeYoung explained that all the Middle Eastern officials she interviewed, “expressed an eagerness to follow the U.S. lead in Syria, including, in some cases, possible participation in airstrikes against the Islamic State, should that be Obama’s decision.” That’s nice.
And apropos of U.S. military intervention in Syria, these same Middle Eastern officials have repeatedly expressed concern to DeYoung over the past three years of Syria’s civil war “at what they’ve seen as administration reluctance to assert strong leadership in support of moderate rebels battling the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.”
This is the same Assad who regards ISIS as a major threat to Syria—where the militant Sunni radicals already control some territory—and to the alliance of secular Alawites, Kurds, and Christians that he leads. As for “moderate rebels,” how about members of the al-Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot in Syria that is fighting both Assad and ISIS? They also happen to be U.S. terrorist list. And in any case, isn’t there a danger that arms supplied to the Syrian rebels could fall into the hands of ISIS, in the same way that American weapons that had been supplied to the Iraqi army are now part of ISIS’s arsenal?
The “strategy” that Obama’s critics are daydreaming about seems to be based on the illusion that American military action is bound to create incentives for collective action on the part of regional players who supposedly regard ISIS as a common threat. If you bomb Syria, the members of this alliance-in-the-making will come together and defeat ISIS.
What’s wrong with this picture? The fact is that, like an amoeba that takes different shapes and forms as it reproduces and replicates itself, ISIS has evolved as an extension of radical Sunni groups, including al-Qaeda, that emerged in opposition to the American invasion of Iraq and, later on, to the Iran-backed Shi’ite government in Baghdad, as well as growing out of the insurgent groups fighting Assad in Syria.
The group, or some of its members in different incarnations, have received direct and indirect assistance from the Saudis (who are opposed to the Shi’ite government in Baghdad as well as to the Alawite regime in Damascus) and the Turks (who were friendly with Assad before they became his enemy). And let’s not forget that ISIS has adopted Saudi Arabia’s strain of Wahhabi Islam, not to mention the Saudi’s favorite form of execution, beheading.
As long as such regional actors think they can safely fuel the fire, they will. But they’re started to get burned, and only that may to change their behavior. The real threat that ISIS poses now to its former benefactors in Riyadh and Ankara is not so much its challenge to the Enlightenment project as the challenge to the region’s political status quo that would result from carving up Iraq and Syria and the creation of an ISIS-led “Caliphate.” This also amounts to a direct threat to the rulers in Baghdad and Syria and their partners in Tehran, but ironically doesn’t come as such bad news to the Kurds, who desire the establishment of an independent state and could probably co-exist with the ISIS Caliphate if it would them alone.
President Obama, to his credit, recognizes this complex reality and as leader of a status-quo power is willing to provide some limited assistance to the regional players if and when they get their act together, contain ISIS, and secure the territorial integrity of both Syria and Iraq. (This could actually prove to be bad news for the pro-partition Kurds.) This would require a stable central government in Baghdad and isn’t going to work if the Assad regime collapses. In fact, it might require some cooperation with Assad and his Iranian patrons, who are regarded by our online warriors as targets for regime changes.
So when former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proved to be an obstacle to the establishment of an all-inclusive government, Obama refrained from taking unilateral action against him and instead allowed the Iranians, with the support of the Saudis, to choreograph his replacement by another Shi’ite figure. And much of the American military power so far deployed has been utilized to avoid a humanitarian crisis and defeat of the Kurdish forces. These limited steps make sense in the context of U.S. interests. A wider American military intervention, including the deployment of ground troops, would only provide disincentives to the regional players to act responsibly and use their own resources as part of an ad hoc partnership to defeat ISIS. It may not be a grand strategy, but it sends a clear message to the regional powers and their cheerleaders in Washington that the United States is not going to do their job for them.
Leon Hadar, senior analyst at Wikistrat, a geostrategic consulting group, is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East.