Right Web

Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Obama’s Anti-ISIS Strategy Met with Skepticism

President Barack Obama's proposal to attack ISIS will likely receive support from Congress, but experts question his choice of tactics and allies.

Inter Press Service

U.S. President Barack Obama’s new strategy to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is being met with widespread scepticism among both hawks and doves, as well as regional specialists.

While Congress is expected to acquiesce to, if not formally authorise, the plans he outlined in his nationally televised prime-time speech, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have not been shy about expressing reservations.

“While the president presented a compelling case for action, many questions remain about the way in which [he] intends to act,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner.

Indeed, while he adopted a determined and confident tone that won plaudits even from Republicans like Boehner, it is no secret here that Obama, who has made Washington’s extraction from Middle East wars a legacy issue for his presidency, has consistently resisted pressure to escalate U.S. military involvement in the region.

Speaking on the eve of the 13th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, Obama announced that he will increase U.S. support for Iraq’s army and the Kurdish Peshmerga with more training, intelligence, and equipment and will dispatch 475 U.S. military personnel to join the 1,000-plus who have deployed there since ISIS swept across much of the northern and central part of Iraq in June.

At the same time, he pledged that the campaign “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”

In addition, he said the U.S. will carry out airstrikes against ISIS targets “wherever they exist,” not only in Iraq, but, most significantly, in Syria, as well.

Washington, he said, is also assembling “a broad coalition of partners”, including NATO, and, more importantly, the Sunni-led Gulf states, Jordan, and Lebanon whose governments pledged support for the anti-ISIS campaign and the new government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi during recent a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in Jiddah.

And Obama asked Congress to swiftly approve a pending request for 500 million dollars to train and equip anti-government and anti-ISIS Syrian rebels.

Saudi Arabia, a major backer of various factions in the three-year insurgency against President Bashar Al-Assad, has agreed to host training camps for these “moderate” rebels, according to administration officials.

This “comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”—which he compared to Washington’s long-standing operations in Yemen and Somalia—will “take time to eradicate a cancer like ISIL (Islamic State of Syria and the Levant),” Obama said, using the administration’s preferred acronym.

While the plan gained guarded approval from most lawmakers—who, facing mid-term elections in November, are particularly sensitive to a sudden hawkish shift in public opinion—many said it raised as many questions as it answered, including whether Obama has the legal authority to order strikes against ISIS, especially in Syria, without getting explicit Congressional authorization.

At the same time, hawks questioned whether the strategy—notably Obama’s pledge not to introduce combat troops—was sufficient to achieve its goals.

“Obama’s ‘strategy’ has no chance of success,” wrote Frederick and Kimberly Kagan of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Institute for the Study of War, respectively, on the Weekly Standard’s website.

The two Kagans, who helped devise the Bush administration’s “Surge” to curb Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’a conflict in 2007, argued that a counter-terrorism (CT) strategy would not work against a full-fledged insurgency, which they said ISIS has become. “It’s awfully hard to develop a sound strategy when you start by misdiagnosing the problem so profoundly,” they wrote. Frederick Kagan has argued that 10-15,000 U.S. troops are necessary for Iraq alone.

Others disagreed. “Getting more U.S. troops on the ground is precisely what … [ISIS chief Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi wants,” Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (ret.), former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, told IPS. “A target-rich environment is what they want, and in their area.

“If the Iraqis and others are not up to defeating [ISIS] forces, then U.S. and allied airpower, some advice on the ground, and intelligence assistance should be sufficient to do so. …[ISIS] is not 10 feet tall, not even four – despite all the media hype to the contrary,” he said.

In Iraq, defeating ISIS will depend largely on whether Abadi follows through on his pledge to share power with Sunni Arabs and fully integrate them into a new security structure, according to regional experts.

“One hundred years of war …has demonstrated that air power can only succeed if a robust ground force is ready to take advantage of air strikes to physically take and occupy territory,” according to Wayne White, a former top State Department Middle East intelligence officer now with the Middle East Institute (MEI).

“The president is not ignorant of this dictum: hence, his part in ousting the loathsome [former Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki and the need for a credibly inclusive new government in Baghdad that can revive the Iraqi Army,” he wrote in an email exchange.

“The proverbial 64,000-dollar question is whether the seemingly mediocre Abadi government can peel enough of [the Sunni Arab tribes and veteran Awakening cadres] away from active and passive support for ISIS or from the sidelines,” White added. “Only a sizeable Sunni Arab force from within could make considerable headway along with airstrikes in unhinging ISIS from key holdings like cities and large towns.”

Even if the strategy in Iraq succeeds, however, attacking ISIS in Syria will be far more difficult, in major part because Western-backed rebel factions are “much weaker than two years ago,” according to former acting CIA chief Michael Morrell, whose assessment echoed that of most regional experts, some of whom, such as former U.S. Amb. to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, have argued for working with Assad as the lesser evil—a step that the administration appears so far to reject.

“The speech left major questions about Syria unanswered,” said Paul Pillar, a former top CIA Middle East analyst. “If ISIS is to be set back, who fills that vacuum? If it is the Assad regime, how does that square with the continued U.S. opposition to that regime? If it is supposed to be someone else, how does that square with the persistent lack of unity, strength, and credibility of the so-called moderate opposition?”

Along with Wilkerson, regional experts worried that Obama’s strategy is susceptible to “mission creep”.

“If the air strikes do not ‘defeat’ ISIS, what policy will the president pursue considering that he ruled out putting boots on the ground?” asked Emile Nakhleh, a former director of the CIA’s political Islam strategic analysis programme.

He also questioned the commitment of the Sunni Arab states that signed on to the strategy in Jiddah “considering that domestic radical Islamists are already posing a serious challenge to such countries as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.”

Thomas Lippman, a Gulf specialist at MEI, agreed that the coalition that Obama was putting together could prove problematic, noting that its members “are united about what they DON’T want—namely more ISIS—but are not united about what they DO want. And many of them are suspicious about some of the others,” he said in an email exchange.

He noted that Turkey, with the most potent military force in the region and whose Incirlik air base has been used in the past for U.S. operations over Iraq, had participated in the Jiddah meeting but failed to sign the summit statement.

Like Wilkerson, Nakhleh also suggested that Obama’s hand been forced as a result of the “media frenzy about the hyped-up ISIS threat” which some commentators have blamed on the sensational coverage of the recent beheadings by ISIS of two U.S. journalists and overheated rhetoric by some of Obama’s top officials, including Kerry and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel.

A poll conducted by ABC News and the Washington Post found 71 percent support for air strikes against “Sunni insurgents in Iraq”—up from 54 percent in mid-August and 45 percent in mid-June as ISIS swept across Iraq.

Jim Lobe blogs about foreign policy at www.lobelog.com

Share RightWeb

Featured Profiles

Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is one of the Senate’s more vocal hawks, and one of the prime vacillators among Republicans between objecting to and supporting Donald Trump.


Ron Dermer is the Israeli ambassador to the United States and has deep connections to the Republican Party and the neoconservative movement.


The Washington-based American Enterprise Institute is a rightist think tank with a broad mandate covering a range of foreign and domestic policy issues that is known for its strong connections to neoconservatism and overseas debacles like the Iraq War.


Max Boot, neoconservative military historian at the Council on Foreign Relations, on Trump and Russia: “At every turn Trump is undercutting the ‘get tough on Russia’ message because he just can’t help himself, he just loves Putin too much.”


Since taking office Donald Trump has revealed an erratic and extremely hawkish approach to U.S. foreign affairs, which has been marked by controversial actions like dropping out of the Iran nuclear agreement that have raised tensions across much of the world and threatened relations with key allies.


Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and an evangelical pastor, is a far-right pundit known for his hawkish policies and opposition to an Israeli peace deal with the Palestinians.


Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is known for her lock-step support for Israel and considered by some to be a future presidential candidate.


For media inquiries,
email rightwebproject@gmail.com

From the Wires

The Trumpian new regional order in the Middle East is predicated on strongman rule, disregard for human rights, Sunni primacy over Iran and other Shia centers of power, continued military support for pro-American warring parties regardless of the unlawfulness of such wars, and Israeli hegemony.


A comparison of U.S. nuclear diplomacy with Iran and the current version with North Korea puts the former in a good light and makes the latter look disappointing. Those with an interest in curbing the dangers of proliferating nuclear weapons should hope that the North Korea picture will improve with time. But whether it does or not, the process has put into perspective how badly mistaken was the Trump administration’s trashing of the Iran nuclear agreement.


Numerous high profile Trump administration officials maintain close ties with anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists. In today’s America, disparaging Islam is acceptable in ways that disparaging other religions is not. Given the continuing well-funded campaigns by the Islamophobes and continuing support from their enablers in the Trump administration, starting with the president himself, it seems unlikely that this trend will be reversed any time soon.


The Trump administration’s nuclear proliferation policy is now in meltdown, one which no threat of “steely resolve”—in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s words—will easily contain. It is hemorrhaging in part because the administration has yet to forge a strategy that consistently and credibly signals a feasible bottom line that includes living with—rather than destroying—regimes it despises or fears. Political leaders on both sides of the aisle must call for a new model that has some reasonable hope of restraining America’s foes and bringing security to its Middle East allies.


Congressional midterm elections are just months away and another presidential election already looms. Who will be the political leader with the courage and presence of mind to declare: “Enough! Stop this madness!” Man or woman, straight or gay, black, brown, or white, that person will deserve the nation’s gratitude and the support of the electorate. Until that occurs, however, the American penchant for war will stretch on toward infinity.


To bolster the president’s arguments for cutting back immigration, the administration recently released a fear-mongering report about future terrorist threats. Among the potential threats: a Sudanese national who, in 2016, “pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to ISIS”; an Uzbek who “posted a threat on an Uzbek-language website to kill President Obama in an act of martyrdom on behalf of ISIS”; a Syrian who, in a plea agreement, “admitted that he knew a member of ISIS and that while in Syria he participated in a battle against the Syrian regime, including shooting at others, in coordination with Al Nusrah,” an al-Qaeda offshoot.


The recent appointment of purveyors of anti-Muslim rhetoric to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom exposes the cynical approach Republicans have taken in promoting religious freedom.


RightWeb
share