from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

ISIS and Us: No Way To Go To War

September 15, 2014

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Washington is in an ISIS frenzy.  Everywhere you turn, everything you read, every place you go, you can’t escape ISIS.  Since James Foley was beheaded on August 19, everyone in and around the Beltway wants to go to war in Iraq. Try as he might to be careful and avoid the mistakes of a decade ago, it seems that the president is being bullied—by the press and his political opponents—into what can only be described as a half-baked policy to go deal with the ISIS threat. Bullied? Yes, bullied.  For a White House that prides itself on not paying attention to its critics, the president seems to be reacting to the universal derision of his ill-considered “We don’t have a strategy yet” statement.  Peter Baker’s revealing piece in Sunday’s New York Times suggests that the criticism stung.  This is why a variety of sources, no doubt close to the president, were willing to relay to Baker how much deliberating over ISIS was actually going on inside the Oval Office before the president’s big speech last Wednesday.  It was hard not to notice the “campaigny, spinny” feel to these statements. That speech, which was clearly intended to alter the perception of helpless incompetence, merely reiterated the ad hoc approach to Iraq that his administration has pursued since early June. There may be good reasons to go to war against ISIS, but no one has actually articulated them.  Are we protecting Erbil and American personnel? Undertaking a humanitarian mission? Fighting evil? Helping the Free Syrian Army? Assisting Washington’s regional allies against the ISIS threat? No one knows, but we are nevertheless turning the aircraft carriers into the wind.  This is no way to go to war.

The disheartening aspect of this episode is that the White House’s instincts were initially correct: Foley’s beheading, that of Steven Sotloff, and most recently the murder of David Haines may be horrible, but they are not very good reasons to commit the United States to the conflict in Iraq and inevitably, Syria—two countries that are likely to be at war with themselves for decades. That may be unavoidable, but before the United States leaps in, policymakers should actually develop a strategy.  In other words, identify realistic national goals and determine what resources are necessary to achieve those aims.  I am not sure anyone has articulated those goals yet, which means that we are still at step one.

This is not just a problem with the Obama administration.  There has been a lot of tough talk around town—mostly assailing the White House—but nothing much in the way of a strategy.  In fact, with all the accusations of appeasement, clothing rending over isolationism, and the anxiety that the United States is becoming like Europe, the president’s critics offer precisely the same approach to ISIS as the White House.  After ripping President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) for various sins related to Syria and Iraq over the last three years, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) proposed the following approach to thwart ISIS in the Washington Post:

“To confront the Islamic State terrorists, we need a sustained air campaign targeting their leadership, sources of income and supply routes, wherever they exist. We must increase our efforts to equip and capacitate non-jihadists in Syria to fight the terrorist group. And we must arm and support forces in Iraq confronting it, including responsible Iraqi partners and the Kurds. In addition, we must persuade nations in the region threatened by the Islamic State to participate in real efforts to defeat it.”

That sounds an awful lot like what President Obama proposed last Wednesday.  That’s not snarky exaggeration.  Here is what the president said (edited for brevity):

“First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists…  Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground… Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks…  Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization…  And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.”

My purpose here is not to pick on Rubio, who is a very good politician, but rather to emphasize the need to do some hard thinking about what can and cannot actually be achieved in Iraq and Syria against ISIS and to what end.  Policymakers may come up with the same unsatisfying policy, but if that is the case at least it is the result of better understanding the nature of the problem, the threat, and what we can do about it.   For too many people, this kind of weighty consideration is tantamount to “Munich!” They seem to prefer to shoot first and understand what we are getting into later.

Let’s remember, ISIS—like al Qaeda before it—wants to suck the United States into a long and debilitating conflict on its own territory.  Let’s not take the bait until we really know what we are doing and how we are going to do it.

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