What to Do About ISIS

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Stringer/Courtesy Reuters

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Audrey Kurth Cronin

Distinguished Service Professor, School of Public Policy, George Mason University; Author, “ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group,” Foreign Affairs

Janine Davidson

Senior Fellow for Defense Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans, U.S. Department of Defense (2009-2012)

Michael Allen

Managing Director, Beacon Global Strategies; Former Special Assistant to the President, National Security Council (2007-2009)

Max Boot, CFR's Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies, Audrey Kurth Cronin, distinguished service professor at George Mason University, and Janine Davidson, CFR's senior fellow for defense policy, join Michael Allen, former special assistant to the president at the National Security Council and managing director of Beacon Global Strategies, to discuss the Islamic State group and possible approaches in responding to the crisis in Iraq and Syria. The panel evaluates U.S. policy options in the context of the broader geopolitics of the Middle East. 

Each meeting in the What to Do About... series highlights a specific issue and features experts who put forward competing analyses and policy prescriptions in a mock high-level U.S. government meeting.

MODERATOR: Today's meeting is one is a series of meetings called the "What to Do About," in this case—in today's case ISIS.

This meeting is designed to be a little different from our usual Council on Foreign Relations meetings, in that we are loosely simulating a National Security Council meeting. As the national security advisor, I will try and interrupt frequently. I will try and ask a lot of questions so we can discern a matter of answers so that we might be able to put a policy prescription before the president. After all, that's our job on the National Security Council.

So the way we'll structure this is that we will begin with—I will begin with what I believe to be the current U.S. policy vis-a-vis ISIS. We will turn as a group to discuss what we believe the policy to be and the way it is working. We will expand it to a conversation about the strategic interests of the United States and the region, and then finally we will try and develop some policy options. Assuming that we don't have consensus and that these distinguished panelists have recommendations for the president, we will try and hammer out what those are.

And like any typical NSC meeting, I expect it to end inconclusively and resolve that we need more meetings to come up with a new policy.

So let me begin with a brief scene-setter to get the ball rolling, and I will then turn to our distinguished guests and introduce them as I pose a question to them. Our ISIS policy seems to begin with Iraq first and then Syria. Let's start with Iraq. Our policy seems to be that we support the Iraqi central government and we encourage them, especially through the departure of Prime Minister Maliki, to have an inclusive government.

But the heart of our policy seems to be military airstrikes upon ISIS, apparently to help the peshmerga on the ground and also the Iraqi security forces in the ground part of this particular campaign. The U.S. is of course engaged in striking military targets today and we should explore whether we need more, what that means and whether that should be expanded, perhaps beyond the advisory role that our U.S. servicemen and women are in now, and whether we perhaps should even commit more ground troops—or ground troops to the effort.

Finally, the state of the Iraqi security forces is unclear. In many cases some of their success is at least in part attributed to the Shiite militias operating across the region. We should discuss whether we think we are winning today, and ultimately whether U.S. interests are being served when apparently, if we believe it to be true, that the U.S. is, as BOOT has put it in an article, being the air force for the Iraqi Shiite militiamen.

Finally, we need to discuss what our posture should be vis-a-vis the Kurds. They are very frustrated that they haven't received arms directly from the United States and they are angry about our policy that everything should be done by, with and through the central government in Baghdad.

And finally, we'll turn to Syria. We've hit some targets there but our policy is ostensibly to arm the moderate rebels so that they may become more of a fighting force, to force a stalemate in Syria so that eventually we'll be able to get to peace talks. And then as I understand our policy to be, we will then insist on the departure of Assad.

We need to discuss also whether in our campaign to defeat ISIS, whether Assad must go, or whether we need to make greater common cause with him as we move forward on the campaign.

Janine, let me start with you. You are a senior fellow for defense policy here at the Council on Foreign Relations. You are a former pilot and Air Force officer. When you were deputy assistant secretary in the Obama administration, you were charged with reviewing strategic plans and military contingency plans.

As recently as August, you wrote that America has no policy to stop ISIS. Do you still believe that, and can you give us some sense of what is happening on the ground today? Is our policy working, and are we making progress against ISIS?

DAVIDSON: Well, thank you for presiding and for the overview. I think you pretty much get the outlines of what's happening pretty much correct. I think what is happening now is that there is a recognition that there is no short-term, there is no purely military, and there is no purely United States approach to this that is going to solve it, that is going to win, that is going to defeat ISIS.

So, what we have is a—we have is a policy to defeat ISIS, but we have actions that have been sort of slow. So we may have missed a few windows actually. We can get to that a little bit later, but to the extent that we need to arm a moderate rebel force in Syria, where are they? Where - what—what's left?

On the military side, there—I think that the outlines of the military strategy is about right for the Iraq peace , but it is a bit of a Rubik's Cube, because you can't just address the Iraq issue. You have to address the ISIS issue, which is a cross-border issue, and that's what I meant originally to say—when I said we don't have a strategy against ISIS. We have an Iraq strategy. We don't have much of a Syria strategy.

MODERATOR: Well, let me—let me press you on that a little bit. As an Air Force officer, is the air—is the air campaign working?

DAVIDSON: Yeah. I mean, the air campaign is working to the extent that it's not going to solve the problem. It is necessary, but not sufficient. The air campaign is necessary but not sufficient, just like military action in general is necessary, but not sufficient.

What I mean by that, is it is very clear that compared to last summer, when we had this lightning sweep across Iraq of ISIS, that kind of—that kind of activity has been put in a box. Airstrikes can suppress that. They aren't—they—they aren't able to mass forces and do what they need to do to continue to take territory, so they've—it's like a Band-Aid on a problem.

To get the next step, however, in a military way, you're going to have to go into the cities, and that's where airpower is a—is a lot less definitive. You can't win wars with airpower alone.

MODERATOR: Well so, let's talk a little bit about that. Max is a distinguished author and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. You've been a scholar on counterinsurgency activities and terrorism in generally. From some of your writings you seem to be a skeptic of the air campaign. You wrote very recently that we are serving as Iran's air force, as the individuals on the ground apparently doing most of the heavy lifting are the Shiite militia forces, apparently armed and trained by Iran.

Can you give us a sense of whether you believe the current policy of airstrikes is working, or are we ultimately employing a self-defeating policy by enabling Iran to exercise still more influence in Iraq?

BOOT: Well, if the objective is to increase the Iranian stranglehold on Iraq, then I would say the policy is working brilliantly. But I would question whether that should be our in fact our policy. And in fact, I think we need to widen the aperture a little bit when we're—because I think one of the issues here is that the administration has been so narrowly focused on trying to combat ISIS, it has lost sight of the bigger picture, which is that if we can push ISIS out of Iraq, and theoretically maybe we are on a trajectory where that might be possible by the end of the year, you know, knock on wood, fingers crossed, et cetera, but even if we are able to do that, if the price of doing that is to deliver Iraq into the hands of the Iranian Quds force, that is a poor bargain to my mind.

So what we really actually need is a strategy that is not just counter-ISIS, but counter-radicalism and extremism throughout the Middle East of both the Sunni and the Shiite persuasion, and we should not be losing sight of the bigger picture here, as in fact I think we are doing, because right now, you know, we are bombing certainly.

But if you look at, for example what is happening in Tikrit, maybe it's the case that Iraqi forces have taken Tikrit. Who knows? They've claimed victory a number of times in the past. But let's say that's true. I mean, you have got to be—you got to be pretty credulous if you think that the Iraqi forces that are taking Tikrit are actually the Iraqi army forces.

And leaving aside the fact that a lot of the Iraqi army forces are probably affiliated with Abad (ph) organization and other militia groups to begin with, the reality is, I mean from everything I have read, the vast preponderance of those forces belong to various Shiite militias, which basically report to General Qasem Soleimani (ph), who is now the most powerful man in Iraq, in spite of actually not being Iraqi. He is, you know, the head of the Iranian Quds force and I think we need to be extremely careful about empowering bad guys like General Soleimani as the price of trying to push back ISIS in Iraq.

And that's, by the way, just in Iraq. I don't think we have any policy in Syria. I don't think there's the remotest hope in hell that we are going to push ISIS out of anywhere in Syria on the current trajectory. In fact, as far as I know, they have been expanding their area of control since we started bombing them last summer, so.

MODERATOR: But Max, so we'll definitely in the course of the NSC meeting here get to options towards the end, but am I hearing that you would pause...

BOOT: Sorry, I'm getting more prescriptive than descriptive, sorry.

MODERATOR: No, it's fine. I'm—I'm going to ask you a prescriptive question. Would you pause the bombing, because apparently in your mind it is only benefiting Iran, and wait until we have either retrained up the Iraqi security forces so that they can play the lead, which you now contend is being led by Qasem Soleimani (ph)?

BOOT: I mean, I'm not sure that we ought to stop all the bombing. To the extent that the bombing is necessary to keep ISIS from advancing and to keep it in check. I think it may make sense. And especially if we are—if we have good targets that we are actually servicing, it may make sense. I just don't think we ought to be running close air support for an Iranian-directed offensive. That's what we should not be doing.

And what we really ought to be focusing on, if we can get this—when we get into the more options side of the meeting, is we really ought to be focusing on building up indigenous Sunni forces that will oppose ISIS.

MODERATOR: Audrey, as a distinguished professor of international relations at George Mason University and author of "How Terrorism Ends," you've made a great contribution to our understanding of terrorism. You've most recently published an essay in this month's Foreign Affairs, where you cautioned policy makers that ISIS is not al-Qaida. You wrote that it is a pseudostate led by a conventional army.

Can you address this and what it means for our current policy, and what policy might flow from it?

CRONIN: Sure. Well, there are really two different questions there. One is specifically about ISIS and the fact that the way we have treated ISIS since it arose is as if it was just the new form of Al Qaida. And so, therefore we've turned our very elaborate counterterrorism strategy and policy in the direction of ISIS, and tried to apply the same kinds of tools that we've used for counterterrorism to ISIS.

And they don't fit, because counterterrorism against Al Qaida was in part aimed at trying to undermine Al Qaida's narrative, and Al Qaida was very concerned about mobilizing forces in order to have that narrative attractive to the Ummah . Whereas ISIS has a very different argument, different narrative, and a different set of ways of going about it. And that is that they want to show brutality, they want to show strength, they want to show power.

So when the United States is focused on the brutality that ISIS carries out, they are actually strengthening ISIS, because ISIS wants to be considered to be intimidating. So, I don't think counterterrorism as a broad overall strategy or policy for the United States works well with ISIS. I also don't think that counterinsurgency is the right strategy or policy.

Counterinsurgency depends upon having a very powerful, and to some degree, in control of a territory government. The government in Baghdad has undermined its own credibility, and to some degree, I believe its legitimacy, and what I see happening in Iraq is more of a civil war than an insurgency.

And so, you know, one of the developments that you did not mention, is that the—what the Iranian Shiite forces, who are called the popular mobilization forces by many Iraqis, are actually wanting the United States to step back so that they can take a bigger role. And this is causing a problem for the current Baghdad government, because they want to win and it doesn't—it's not always clear exactly whether it matters who carries out the actions on their behalf.

So, counterinsurgency is the wrong strategy too. We have a tendency to think about Iraq as if we were still there in occupation. We spent a lot of resources and—and lost a lot of lives. There were a lot of sunk costs in that way of thinking about Iraq, but that Iraq is not the Iraq of today. The Iraq of 2006 is very different than the Iraq of today.

So I would say that the best policy with respect to ISIS, is containing their current advance, excuse me, but also thinking about American interests in a broader sense. I mean, we've—we've been talking a lot about policies and operations and we're not actually thinking about what are American interests in the region? Because you can't decide how exactly to respond to ISIS, or how exactly to respond to Syria, or how exactly to respond to Iraq, or indeed whether airstrikes are the right means, unless you actually think about what it is that the United States should try to accomplish within the region.

MODERATOR: All right, well, let's—let's drill down on that. What are the U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East right now?

CRONIN: Well, I think there are four. Others would disagree but this is where my thinking comes from. The first is that the United States should protect its—its homeland and its people, its citizens. The second is that the United States should protect its allies. The third is stability within the region. I think that is an interest for the United States. If the region is—has its wheels flying off, it's going to destabilize the whole world.

And then finally, and I would put it forth now because of the change in the degree to which the United States is dependent upon energy from the region, but nonetheless, the fourth major interest is global access to energy sources. So with those as the main interest, I think developing our policy within the region becomes a little bit easier and more clear. And—and our strategy it's—it's a broader strategy that has many layers and many players.

MODERATOR: But, your article and—and your writings about Al Qaida, is ISIS defeatable?

CRONIN: Of course, yes. Well, I personally believe that it's likely to be defeated by the turn away from support of the extreme ideology that ISIS represents, by many of the Sunni and Baathists and sort of tribal factions that are currently aligned with ISIS. I mean, remember that ISIS didn't come into Iraq without help.

Many of the people who were aligned with us during the surge are the ones who are actually leading ISIS's military operations.


CRONIN: And that's a bitter reality, and that's what also I think makes it not a counterinsurgency, because if you have the very forces that we—that we were working with before supporting ISIS now, that tells you that they feel that there is nowhere else to turn.

MODERATOR: Well, let's—we are definitely going to get back to this counterinsurgency issue, but Max, let me turn to you. You wrote a Wall Street Journal editorial recently about the president's Mideast policy. I wonder if you might tell us if you agree with Audrey's prescriptions of what our strategic interests are in the region. Or which ones would you add or subtract?

BOOT: Probably broadly I agree with the way Audrey put it, but I would say that there our—there is an overriding interest which goes back to—and I am going now—I'm going to speak well of a president I don't normally speak well of, Jimmy Carter, going back to the good old Carter doctrine, which you may remember from 1979, 1980. The reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis was to enunciate this doctrine that we were not going to allow any hostile power to dominate the Persian Gulf region.

At that time, we envisioned that hostile power probably being the Soviet Union, but today I think it applies equally well to Iran, and we should certainly not be allowing Iran to try to dominate the region, as they are well on their way to doing with proxies in control in Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and now in—in much of Yemen as well.

There is an Iranian power grab going on, which I think we need to oppose at the same time as we oppose the—power grab by jihadist groups like ISIS and the al-Nusra Front, and I think the important thing to keep in mind is that these extremists really feed off of one another. And this is part of the reason why our current policy is so incredibly self-defeating, because in the eyes of the region, we seem to be aligning ourselves with Iran, and Iran seems to be the leader of the anti-ISIS coalition, which is literally true in the case of on-the-ground operations, for example, in Tikrit, where Iranian directed forces are in the lead.

Well what do Sunnis think when they see this? They go shrieking in horror and it drives them into the arms of ISIS, which is the point that Audrey was making about how there are a lot of our former awakening allies, there is a lot of former Baathists who are in league now with ISIS because they essentially see ISIS as—not because they necessarily love ISIS or its ideological program, but because they see ISIS as the lesser evil which protects them from Iranian domination and the kinds of abuses that Iran and its allies inflict upon Sunni communities.

So, this is to, you know—to the extent that we are seen as this furthering this Iranian power grab, it's striving Sunnis into the arms of the—of extremists like ISIS. And those two extremes are the Quds force on one hand and ISIS on the other. They feed off of each other. The more power one gets in their own community, the more power the other one gets in their community.

MODERATOR: So, just to follow up on the Iran question. We, the administration, the United States has had a policy of trying to arm some of our allies, especially the Gulf Arabs around the world. Notwithstanding the nuclear negotiations, we generally tried to at least diplomatically oppose Iran. But what more should the United States be doing to oppose Iran's, as you would say, malign influence around the region?

BOOT: Well, certainly if you talk to our allies in the region, whether our allies in Israel or in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, they would not agree with that assessment that we were trying to oppose Iranian designs. They see us basically laying down for an Iranian power grab, because we don't want to mess up the nuclear negotiations going on now in Geneva.

And I think if we were serious about opposing Iranian designs, we should have a counter-Iran strategy. That should be not just the counter-ISIS strategy but a counter-Iran strategy. We are sort of being dragged willy-nilly into an anti-Iran intervention in Yemen, because of what the Saudis and Egyptians are doing, but that's not being driven by us.

I mean, you heard General Austin, the commander of CENTCOM, testify that he was barely given any heads up before the Saudis started bombing Yemen. They—they are these Sunni states are clearly taking the law into their own hands, trying to deal with Iran as best they can, because they see this complete power vacuum on the U.S. side. They don't see us mobilizing this traditional anti-Iran alliance, which we have been the leader of ever since 1979.

And I think, we need to reinvigorate that and not be so sanguine about the fact that Iranian allies have essentially taken over in, as I mentioned, not only in Beirut but now in Iraq, Syria and Yemen as well. And I think we need a strategy to empower our local allies to try to push back against Iranian designs and to do some of the things that we did, for example, in 2007, 2008 during the surge in Iraq, pretty successfully to use our—especially our intelligence assets, as well as some of our special operations assets to try to surface Iranian designs, to target Iranian agents and to neutralize their influence to the greatest extent possible. I don't see us even trying to do that right now.

MODERATOR: Janine, I want to get your view. We do have a—the United States does have a coalition; Jordan and the UAE among others have supported us militarily. Could you address a little bit about our standing in the region and whether we need a more aggressive diplomatic strategy to buttress the military strategy for ISIS?

DAVIDSON: I think the diplomatic and the military things are related, and I think that also—that Max, you know, he gets the—the outlines of the Iran problem right. The—but the conundrum for America here is—is how to amp up our involvement to fill that vacuum and push back against Iran, but not go so far, especially and also with respect to ISIS, as to then turn this problem that isn't totally about us, more about us, right, which is also what Audrey kind of gets into.

I mean, you know, we're all focused on ISIS, and they are nasty and their violent and they are brutal and they offend our humanity, but they are not an existential threat to us, right? I mean, Iran is—is a big threat. But we could make the ISIS threat more if a problem for us, we're talking about U.S. interests, by overreacting, by taking the fight completely into our own hands, and then we are once again, you know, occupying and invading and—in the region, which ends up fueling the narrative that ISIS has.

And so, I think this is, unfortunately there are few good options with respect to what America should do. I mean, you can say—we can come up with a strategy for what needs to be done to—to defeat ISIS over the long run, but that isn't the same thing as what America needs to do in the region.

And so, to your point about building the coalition. So, airstrikes create pressure on ISIS and they hold them in so that we can then deal with some of the them political coalition-building that needs to be done, building the regional security forces, trying to un-farkle (ph) the problem vis-a-vis who are you empowering more, the—the Shia—the Iranian-supported Shia militias, or the Sunnis that we're trying to get back in the tent that we lost.

And all of that has to happen in a combination of military...

MODERATOR: Am I hearing a rough consensus here, that most of you believe Iran's influence in the region is a greater threat than ISIS is? Audrey, do you want to...

CRONIN: Well, I would only say that one of the reasons why Iran has gained influence is as a direct result of American policy over the last 12 years or so. So I think we deserve to have a certain amount of humility, when it comes to naming Iran now as the broadest threat.

I—I think that Iran and ISIS are both threats, but I think we're operating at different levels of a kind of a chessboard, if you will. I mean, we have got a global level, where you've got the Iranian nuclear talks and some aspects of transnational terrorism. You've got a regional level, where you've got the Saudis and the Arab coalition and the Iranians, and there's a lot of jockeying going on between the two. I agree with Max that that is a—a serious concern.

And then, at the local level, you've got Yemen, you've got Syria, you've got Iraq. These are conflicts that have—you know, these are not completely discernible levels that are not intertwined. But if you think about the fact that these are interests that occur at those levels, not every player plays at every level. So, you know, the United States plays at all three levels. There are other players that also play at two or three of the levels.

Let me just observe that you are not going to solve the problem in Syria, for example, without Russia. And you're going to be deluding yourself if you think that the future of Iraq is going to leave aside any influence from Iran. These are(inaudible) political questions.

And so, getting back to your question, what should the United States be doing? I think it needs to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. It needs to have a complicated strategy that keeps those interests that I mentioned at the beginning at the heart of it.

MODERATOR: Okay, let's—let's tackle Syria here. We've—we've got about five minutes and then we are going to do something quite novel. We are going to handle Syria in five minutes...


MODERATOR: ... we're—we're going to do something quite novel for a National Security Council meeting. In about 15 minutes, we're going to take questions from the audience. So, please get your questions ready.

Let's talk a little bit about Syria. Max, is it absolutely necessary that Assad be deposed for us to have a successful Mideast strategy?

BOOT: Yes.

MODERATOR: Why? What—what is the—why is it that to defeat ISIS we have to get rid of Assad?

BOOT: Well it's because of this. Well, A, as I said, I don't think that defeating ISIS should be our only objective. We need to defeat Iran as well, and Assad is a pawn of Iran. But also, the—the point that I made earlier, there is a dynamic where the more that Iranian-backed Shiite extremists are seen to be in control of these countries, the more that Sunnis will flock to groups like ISIS.

There is no way to defeat ISIS without also defeating Assad, and what we're trying to do right now, there's no way in hell it's going to work because what we are doing is essentially we are trying to say to the free Syrian army, okay, guys, sign up with us, go fight against ISIS, but don't fight against Assad. And we are not going to do anything to protect you, your homes and your loved ones from Assad, whose air force is dropping barrel bombs on your neighborhoods right now. Because we don't care about Assad, because de facto the U.S. has reversed its policy and we have gone from calling for Assad's overthrow to essentially supporting his continuation in power.

MODERATOR: Well, so, so...


BOOT: ... and we want Syrians who hate Assad to ignore him, this guy who has killed over 200,000 of his countrymen and has been responsible for forcing at least half the population to leave their homes. And we want them to concentrate on the only group that we care about in—in Syria, which is ISIS. That dog ain't going to hunt.

MODERATOR: Let—let me just drill down one more time on this. I agree that we—our policy has been that we need to remove Assad, even notwithstanding some of Secretary Kerry's comments in recent weeks. But...

BOOT: Make sure you put that in the past tense. Our policy had been for a while to remove Assad and no longer is.

MODERATOR: It had been and doesn't seem to be now.

BOOT: Yeah.

MODERATOR: ISIS has come on the scene. At one point, we were going—we were going to arm the Syrian rebels, which is something I'm going to get to in a second. But tell me again just what is the straight line between—you know, if the aim is to defeat ISIS, why do we have to take out Assad to do that?

BOOT: Well, because I think as long as Assad and his—and his Iranian backers are on the scene destroying Sunni neighborhoods that Sunnis will continue to look to the al-Nusra Front and ISIS for protection. The only way you're going to defeat those jihadist organizations is by decoupling them from their Sunni base of support, which is what we did so successfully in Iraq in 2007, 2008, when we turned the Sunni tribes against AQI, the predecessor organization of—of ISIS.

Right now, the dynamic which exists in both Iraq and Syria is that Sunnis feel under assault by Iranian proxies. As long as that is the case, you're not going to succeed in decoupling them from ISIS or the al-Nusra front. All—so, you're just feeding the cycle of violence.

And there's not—there's not—I should hasten to add, there is not an easy straight line from let's overthrow Assad and then two days later ISIS will be overthrown. Obviously, if you overthrow Assad, there is also the potential that you are creating a power vacuum that ISIS can come into. I mean, I would be the first to admit, there is no easy way to fix the situation in Syria. If there ever was, we should have taken action, as General Petraeus, when he was CIA director, advocated a massive program of support for the Free Syrian Army back in 2012, when there was a much greater chance of success.

 But right now, the Free Syrian Army, which I think was our best bet all along, has been decimated because it has been squeezed by both sides, by both the Assad as well as the ISIS, Nusra Front jihadist forces so there is very little left. So, I'm not even sure that Syria can survive as a unitary country. And I think if there is going to be any hope for the long term in Syria, it would have to involve getting rid of Assad and having some kind of large-scale, multinational peacekeeping force in there. But it is hard for me to imagine—well, how that would actually work in practice.

So, I don't have a whole heck of a lot of hope for the—you know, the near-term in Syria. I don't have a magic policy prescription, but I'm just observing that we're—I don't think we can ignore Assad and try to go after ISIS. That strategy just has not worked and will that work.

MODERATOR: OK. Janine, going after Assad, would that—you seem to worry a little while ago that if we got too involved in the region, that would be ultimately detrimental to U.S. interests. Trying to topple Assad, should that still be our aim and our counter-ISIS strategy, or would that be going too far?

DAVIDSON: I mean, I—I agree that Assad is a criminal and that he's, you know, and that he doesn't deserve to be in control in Syria. That said, you know, if there is one thing the last 10 years is—should have taught us, it is that you can't just pop the top on these countries and expect magic to happen afterwards. And so, you have to be very careful, especially if it is going to be us, you know, toppling Assad.

About, you know, are you—if you could have a massive international multilateral—multinational peacekeeping force in there that is, you know, governing the country, a la, you know, the Balkans, you know, but could we do that? I'm not—I'm not so sure. But I also do agree that we—that we missed some windows. 2012, I mean, the Free Syrian Army, where are they? And everybody in that region is making a calculation on a day-to-day basis about how to survive.

And to the extent that ISIS was able to grow in Iraq and then through into Syria because of, in Iraq, Maliki, and in Syria, Assad, ostracizing the—the Sunni population, that—that is going to continue to be the problem. So the Sunnis are the—the key to defeating ISIS.

And let's just say one more thing about ISIS. I don't know if Audrey will agree with this or not, but, you know, ISIS is, I believe, a quasi-state. They're not a terrorist group, they are not an insurgency group, but they are a lousy state. Right? And they—they will not succeed in—in their large-scale caliphate as long as they are unable to continue to recruit.

So we take a long-term approach to ISIS and we calm down a little bit and we think about what our interests are in the region. That problem—I'm not going to say it will take care of itself, but it is definitely a state that is not going to be able to continue to do what it needs to do, and to continue—it has to keep growing, it has to keep generating taxes in order to do what it needs to do, and it is not going to be able to keep doing that.

MODERATOR: Audrey, did you want—do you want to respond to that?

CRONIN: Generally I agree with that, yes. I think it is a very long-term process, though, because ISIS as a pseudo-state has been very good at using extortion and, you know, channeling black market oil, and, you know, having its own forms of self-sustainment. And they're also very good at attracting foreign fighters and what I would call migrants, females—females who go there to be brides and are not actually fighting once they get there.

But there are a lot of people who are coming from the West, who are flooding into Syria and Iraq. To some degree we've begun to manage that much better with the closing of the border by the Turks. But ISIS is a long-term problem. I don't think they are going to be effective at governing their pseudo-state, and that's the hope in the longer term.

But if the United States thinks that this is all about us fighting ISIS, we're leaving out all of the other major players in the region, and we are also being extremely solipsistic, because there are a lot of other people—there is no other government in the world that supports ISIS or the Islamic State. So to the degree that we are responding without thinking about the position of the Turks, the Russians, the other neighbors within the region, I think we are being very foolish.

And in fact, we can, if we are foolish enough, put ourselves right into the narrative that ISIS projects, which is that they're reaching the end days, end times, and that, you know, the Westerners, who would be the American, the so-called infidels, are a force against more people should mobilize.

BOOT: If I could just make a comment on that. I mean, this is a point that both Audrey and Janine have made, and yes, there is a danger of seeming to make this fight about the United States and allowing them to posture as the adversaries of the great Satan and all that kind of stuff. That's true. That is a danger we should keep in mind.

But keep in mind, it's really—here you're really choosing your poison, because if we are not in there actively opposing ISIS—which we have not been doing, President Obama has tried to pull back from the Middle East over the course of his presidency—the result of that is to create a power vacuum which they then fill.

And ISIS is so successful right now in part because they've been successful in the past. They've created this actual caliphate, unlike Al Qaida. They actually control territories. Everybody is saying they are now more or less a state. And a lot of their aura, a lot of the attractiveness they have for recruits, the reason why they are attracting 1,000 foreign recruits a month or something like that, is because they actually do control the territory.

And if they were suddenly to lose control of that territory, that would be the biggest blow they could possibly suffer. Far more significant than any kind of counter-radicalization things we are doing on Twitter or anywhere else, what will destroy their appeal is if they cease to control territory and their—and their pretensions to be this modern-day caliphate are exposed...


MODERATOR: But if...

BOOT: ... that's ultimately the way to—so in other words, the way to defeat ISIS is pretty simple, is, you've got to defeat ISIS.

MODERATOR: Okay, so—but in Syria, we all agree that the efforts to arm the so-called moderate opposition have not been successful. I think we all agree.

CRONIN: I think that it's basically a two-sided fight now. It's between the Assad government—you know, it's either death by Assad or join ISIS for most people who live.


BOOT: Although, keep—keep in mind that and ISIS and Assad have not been fighting that directly against one another that much. They have actually been observing more or less a de facto—not complete but de facto ceasefire because ISIS concentrates on controlling the Sunni regions and Assad has a stake in building up ISIS because then he can say, look, it's either me or ISIS, and that—that's the way that he gets the West on board with him.

CRONIN: Yes, but the one thing I would disagree with you, Max, is that I don't think it was the power vacuum by the United States that enabled ISIS to grow. I think it was the power vacuum by the MalikI government and the fact that they actually were taking action against their own Sunni minority...


BOOT: Which—which occurred...

CRONIN: ... and caused their own legitimacy to be undermined.

BOOT: Right, which occurred after we pulled all of our troops out and lost all influence in Iraq and after we refused to do anything about the burgeoning Syrian civil war, thereby creating huge power vacuums on both sides of the border that ISIS has now expanded into.

MODERATOR: But—but just in terms of what policy options we have left, do we believe that the moderate Syrian opposition is still viable?

Janine, can we salvage this as a policy option? Arming them, that is?

DAVIDSON: I mean, I think that—I think that in the long-term there may be some hope that you can gather, you know, some rebel fighters back, but, I mean, we definitely missed the more important window, like I said, back in 2012. When there, you know—there were people quitting like crazy in Assad's army, those guys were ready to go, and where they now? So it—it—I don't think that it is something we should necessarily give up on, but it's definitely a much bigger mountain to climb now than it would've been.

MODERATOR: Janine, Max, all right, so this is where I think I hear a policy option there of yes, we should be cautious about this, but that over the long term we should try and continue to arm the Syrian rebels.

BOOT: And not just—I would say not just arm them. I think we need to do—I mean, think we need to do stuff that I and others have been arguing we need to do since 2011, including creating a no-fly zone so that the Assad air force can't continue to bomb civilian areas. And we need to create safe zones on the borders with Jordan and Turkey, where the Syrian government in exile can actually begin to govern on Syrian territory without fear of being annihilated by the—by Assad's forces.

MODERATOR: So apparently, President Obama was against arming the Syrian rebels, in part because he didn't want to have a proxy war in Syria, perhaps with Russia backing the Assad regime and us backing the rebels. Does that dissuade you at all from Russia's involvement here? I think I know the answer.


BOOT: I mean, I'm not too worried about the Russian legions marching into Syria. I mean, the Russians to me are just...

MODERATOR: A proxy war. Does it bother you that...

BOOT: The—the Russia—it's not a proxy war with Russia. It's a proxy war with Iran. The Russians are just a nuisance factor. I don't think they are a by—a major or decisive...

MODERATOR: We all agree we need to redouble our efforts to find and arm and train, and perhaps give safe havens to a moderate Syrian opposition. Do we agree on that?

CRONIN: I would go along with Max on a safe haven, except that I was express it slightly differently. I think the moderates are not really available to be armed right now. We have to—that's going to be a rebuilding process.

MODERATOR: We've got to find them.

CRONIN: If they exist, if they are not all dead. But more important, and, or at least as important, is I think we need to seriously ramp up our humanitarian aid for that flood of humanity that are in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey. I think that that's more important than this two years late effort to try to arm people that really—I mean, the CIA has been in there trying to work with moderate Syrians for a while, so you've got this inter-agency friction between CIA and DOD and there are not enough people there for them to work with as it is. So, we've got to rethink what it is that were doing in those countries that border.

MODERATOR: Okay, before we go to questions from the audience, Janine, Max wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently, Mr. Obama's launching air strikes against the Islamic State while refusing to commit any ground troops, even though they are essential to ensuring the success of airstrikes.

Would you support the use of U.S. ground troops in Iraq to defeat ISIS?

DAVIDSON: Well, like I said, I think that the more our ground troops—we have to be very careful. Ground troops to assist local forces I think is helpful, training, coaching, helping plan, and there is a mushy line there. But when we take the fight on unilaterally, that's when we make the fight about ourselves...


MODERATOR: ... well, but it wouldn't be unilaterally.

DAVIDSON: That said, I'm not, you know, okay. Either way, but...

MODERATOR: So you would be for boots on the ground...?


DAVIDSON: ... to the extent that it looks like it is a U.S. fight, that will feed their narrative and we have to be careful. I know it is uncomfortable, you know, but this is kind of the uncomfortable truth about it.

MODERATOR: You—you might take some the shackles off...


DAVIDSON: ... I'm also—I'm not, yeah, and I'm not as freaked out about these ground forces for various things in general. In fact, I also agree with Audrey that if we are serious about one of our core values in the region, which is helping civilians who are, you know, massively displaced and hurting, then we—you have to put people on the ground to help people. And we have been hesitant to do that because there is risk involved, but I would take risk in order to do that. And I would not be afraid to put some forces on the ground to assist the actual combat forces that need to go into these cities.

And I'll say one more thing, which is I get the sense from—when I hear Max talk about, you know, we need to defeat ISIS, yeah, it needs to be defeated. But people talk about Tikrit and they talk about Mosul and that, you know, when you take back these cities. There is a danger of catastrophic military success here, right?

You go so quickly and then you have—you still have popped the top on this Shia-Sunni problem, which is what I think you saw happening in Tikrit, which is why you see the U.S. holding back, right? And then the Iranians sort of failing in their ability to do it. And now you see the U.S. going in.

So, the U.S. has a delicate balance to play to make sure that they are not supporting the right—wrong sides, and it's not going to be easy to do that. And the best way to create even more chaos in the region I think is to, you know, very quickly and catastrophically overthrow Tikrit and Mosul and then have, you know, Shia militia running all about.

MODERATOR: Okay, let me—let me, before we go to questions, Max, I want to give you an opportunity to respond to Audrey. General Petraeus has written that what we need in Iraq is a COIN strategy, not led by U.S. troops in his estimation, but by Iraqi troops. Except Audrey seems to say that COIN is no longer applicable here because it is not like the uprising in Iraq in 2006, 2007. We need a different strategy that's not COINed-based.

Can you try and help us here? Why should we have a COIN strategy?

BOOT: Well, I mean, I think a COIN strategy is basically the only strategy that has any track record of success. And it's not an easy strategy, but it's the only strategy that has any track record of success in dealing with an enemy that is entrenched among the people.

I mean, a counterterrorist strategy, which is their most commonly mooted alternative—not by Audrey but by others—which is just essentially picking off individual terrorists, is not going to defeat an entrenched terrorist group. And in this case, a conventional offensive is not going to probably succeed either, and you're—because what will happen is that even if you can do the clear phase, even if you can use massive firepower to clear cities like Tikrit and Mosul and push ISIS out for the time being, at the risk of creating massive civilian casualties, you still have to be able to do the clear and hold phase.

Because, when you do the clear that—that enables you to do the hold and build phase, and to do that you have to have forces that are able to essentially create some kind of governance on the ground. Because if you don't do that then, the terrorists will infiltrate right back in and you haven't really achieved anything.

And so fundamentally—I mean, the solution to groups like ISIS is fundamentally you have to offer better governance. I mean, the reason why ISIS was able to step into Syria and Iraq is because there wasn't any governance that was effective in those places. The Iraqi army, for example, fell apart, because they had been compromised by Shiite sectarians and corrupt officers and so forth, so there was no effective counter.

So the obvious counter to ISIS is to have effective governance that can impose control 24-7 in places like Anbar province and Ninevah province and these other places where ISIS has taken root. Now, obviously one option to do that would be U.S. forces, which is what we did in 2007, 2008 during the surge. There's obviously not the will to do that at this point.

I think our best bet is working with local forces. And if they are seen as legitimate, they can then take out ISIS and replace its control with control that is more benign in U.S. eyes. But the—so the difficulty there is we have to create those forces because by and large they don't exist right now. There's very little of the professional Iraqi army left, and we should certainly work with the small core that's left, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces and so forth.

But by and large, most of the fighting is being done by Shiite militias who have no credibility in Sunni areas and cannot do—cannot execute an effective COIN strategy if their lives depended on it because they are seen as implacable enemies of the local people. So we—what we need to be doing is mobilizing the local Sunnis into an anti-ISIS coalition. Once that happens, if you can recreate awakening (ph)-type forces then they can actually do the counterinsurgency type operations with a good deal of credibility.

MODERATOR: Okay, there are a host of issues we weren't able to get to. Maybe we'll get to them in Q and A, especially what to do about Turkey and what about ISIS and Libya. But we will return to that if we have a chance.

But now we invite the audience members to join in the discussion. Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and affiliation, and keep questions and comments concise so we can allow as many attendees as possible to speak. So, I see two right here. Let's do the lady in the green, and then the gentleman right there in front of her.

QUESTION: Hi, I'm Trudy Reuben from the Philadelphia Inquirer , I'm also a member. The premise seems to be that Iraq is in better shape than Syria. But as Max Boot said, you would need to train tribal forces in order to have forces on the ground. There's no sign in Baghdad that that's going to happen. The money is not being put aside.

So, my question is, why do we think that there would be any offensive even in the coming year in Iraq that could take back Mosul? The Iraqi army won't be ready, the tribal forces won't rise because they don't trust the central government, and Shia can't and shouldn't do it.

And if that's the case, are we going to see ISIS in its state two years from now with nothing much changed, and what would be the consequences of that?

MODERATOR: Janine, do you want to take that?

DAVIDSON: You know, it's interesting because recently I was at an event where Major General, retired Iraqi Jabouri (ph), who had been the so-called mayor of Khalifar (ph) and partnered with U.S. troops for the surge, gave a talk, and he said the Sunnis that fought with you, Americans, are ready to fight with you again. They would—they could—but they cannot be convinced until the Iraqi government makes some assurances and gets rid of de-Baathification, which is still in effect and on the books in many cases in Iraq, which is oh, by the way, probably original sin of the American invasion. And then the de-militarization.

But he, you know—your point is actually right on. I mean, you—the key to defeating ISIS comes with the Sunnis. They have decided, especially in Iraq, that ISIS is the lesser of two evils, which they decided back in 2005 Al Qaida in Iraq was, until they were able to rise up against them.

So, there is a potential there, but it's—the thing that we, I think, are forgetting is what we continue forget about COIN. COIN comes in lots of flavors and sizes and it isn't always just exactly what it looked like in 2007. It is counterinsurgency, and to the effect that the people in Iraq feel like this civil war has insurgency-like elements, meaning people are embedded among the people, the fighters are embedded, then there are counterinsurgency-like approaches.

But the thing that we keep forgetting is the political element here, right? I mean, you can govern with a heavy hand, with military troops in a city and provide security to the people and economic development and all those other lines of operation that you read in the counterinsurgency handbook, but if the leader of Iraq, like Maliki did, continues to ostracize and crack down on one part of the population, you're never going to get there. You've got a massive hole in your bucket.

BOOT: I could just emphasize what Janine just said because I violently agree that the decisive line of operations has to be political. And essentially in order to get the Sunnis to fight against ISIS, which is the only way you're going to defeat ISIS, because the Sunnis are the center of gravity in this operation, the only way you're going to do it is to offer them a better political deal.

And you're not going to do it if you tell them, okay, please help us fight ISIS, risk your necks and then we are going to leave again, as we did in 2011. And you're going to have to deal with these Shiite sectarians in Baghdad. That's not going to work.

I mean, you have to basically, and this is going to be very difficult to do, but this is what we have to do is I think we have to engineer some kind of deal that guarantees some degree of Sunni autonomy, perhaps similar to the kind of set-up that the Kurds already have in the KRG, probably guaranteed with American defense guarantees in the future, that we will station troops there or nearby, maybe in the KRG, maybe in Anbar, and we will defend Sunni rights and stand as guarantors of their freedom.

And if that were the case, I think you might see the current situation reversing pretty quickly, as you did in 2007, 2008. But you've got to give the Sunnis a reason to fight against ISIS, and right now they don't have it.

CRONIN: I actually think you have nailed the situation reasonably well, Trudy, and I agree with much of what is been said. The only thing I would disagree with is that if there is a political deal, it has got to be a political deal that is offered by the Iraqi government, not by the United States, because if we have learned anything, it is that the United States does not have either the power or the consensus to single-handedly have an open-ended occupation of Iraq.

BOOT: Okay, but I am not advocating open-ended occupation of Iraq, but remember that the Iraqi government is not really in control of its fate right now. They are being dominated by the Iranians. So if we don't—we manage to achieve something by getting Maliki ousted from power, which was an advance, and I think Prime Minister Abadi is an improvement on Prime Minister Maliki, but Prime Minister Maliki is still not the most powerful man in the country. And so, we have to serve as a political counterweight to the dominant Iranian influence.

Otherwise, the Iranians aren't going to offer a deal to the Sunnis. Why would they?

MODERATOR: OK, let's go to our second question here and then we have another one right here on the third row .

QUESTION: Thank you. Richard Downy from Delpha Strategic Consulting and thank you—really interesting discussion. I'd like to touch on a point that Audrey made. And you said that we don't need a counter-ISIS strategy, we need a counter—a Middle East strategy. And Martin Indyk of Brookings Institution wrote a piece recently that addressed essentially, the—in order to achieve the objectives that you mentioned, Audrey, the four objectives essentially, he said there are two ways to do it.

You either work with Iran as the dominant power in the region, which Max essentially says we are de facto doing, or you work with the pillar nations, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, to work—either one of those. And it seems to me, I mean, my question is, do you think we are in fact, as Max suggests, going toward this de facto relationship with Iran, or are we just doing these things badly, all of these pieces badly? Thank you.

CRONIN: Yes, should I start...


MODERATOR: Audrey, I thought I heard—I thought I heard your name invoked.

CRONIN: Yes, you did. Well, I think that you have identified a very key point, which is that our relationship with the region depends upon a number of different actors. I do think that our handling of Iran has been remarkably naive, I would say, in the last 12 years, and that we need to develop a lot more complexity in how we look at the major powers within the region.

I do not think that the Arab coalition led by the Saudis and including, what is it, nine other Arab states taking action in Yemen is a bad thing. I think that the fact that they are taking that action independently and are using force and are acting as a—to some degree a kind of military counterbalance with respect to this regional balance with Iran is not a bad thing from the American point of view. Because if you truly believe that stability is one of the American interests for the region, you have to have some tolerance for people within the region developing that balance between them.


DAVIDSON: It is interesting because, I agree with what you're saying, it'`s uncomfortable, but you know, it has been our policy for years, not just Obama, but—to support local actors to take responsibility for their region. This is why we do security force assistance, this why we do foreign military sales. We spent like 10 or 15 years arming up this region and helping them professionalize their militaries. It's sort of one of those be careful what you ask for things. You want to know what it looks like for the region to take control of their security? Well, step back and take a look.

So then, it does make you question what your role is then. I mean, are we sideline coach, are we in there, you know, leading from the front? I mean, what exactly, you know, is—does it look like for this strategy that we have been focused on for a decade in the region to help them gain control of their own security? What does it look like?

BOOT: If I could just jump in quickly on the Saudi intervention in Yemen. I am not necessarily opposed to it either. I just question whether the Saudis actually know what they are doing, and whether, to get back to our—the counterinsurgency question, do they have a COIN strategy or do they have a bombing strategy? At the moment, I see a bombing strategy. They are blowing things up, which may be OK in the short term, but how do they get from there to actually defeating the Houthis and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and pacifying Yemen?

I'm seeing a big question mark here. I'm not really seeing the answers. I'm not sure the Saudis or the Egyptians know what the answers are. I'm not sure they have thought this through. I am actually concerned about where this is going.

DAVIDSON: I'm sure they asked the same questions when we invaded Iraq in 2003—do they know what they are doing?

BOOT: And they had a good point.

DAVIDSON: Yes, they did.

MODERATOR: All right. This right here—and then you, and then the lady in the back, back.

QUESTION: Hello, Margaret Monroe Broozallen . I study extremist groups' online presence, including ISIS and social media, which is everybody's favorite topic nowadays. As long as they can use social media and other online tools to attract foreign fighters to throw themselves into the meat grinder, they are going to be pretty hard to defeat. From what I've observed of the U.S. and other Western governments trying to counter that messaging online, it has been at best laughable and at worst has galvanized them, the online community, to, you know, keep posting propaganda, et cetera.

Is there any group that has the credibility to sort of counter that online messaging? Who is it and how would they go about it?

BOOT: As I was trying to say earlier, I don't think you're going to defeat them with online messaging, no matter how effective it is, no matter what group it comes from. The way you end their appeal is by defeating their ability to hold a huge chunk of territory in Syria and Iraq because that's really the basis of their ideological appeal right now, is that they have actually created a caliphate. If their hold on that caliphate is destroyed, I think you would see their ideological appeal wane pretty fast.

DAVIDSON: I think a lot of people focus on social media and I think it's important. I'm not so sure that it is the exact way that the teenager decides to join, however. I mean, they—we're talking about the patterns of foreign fighters coming out of London, for instance, and—or England. They go in threes. They joined with their buddies. And they're primarily are approached personally, face-to-face.

I mean, I think that the online probably helps on a greater sort of level and it freaks us all out, and maybe there are other things happening online where they're sharing information at a different level, but in terms of the actual recruitment of those foreign fighters that come from Western countries especially, I mean, they're being approached individually, face-to-face. And so my sense is that the way to counter it is actually at that local level with some of those sorts of programs that they are developing now.

CRONIN: Well, I actually think that having a better strategy and policy with respect to how we respond to the new media is important to degrading ISIS' attraction. I don't think this is an either-or. I think that a key part of a broad American strategy toward ISIS, an absolutely essential part, has to be to use private actors and individuals that are not directly members of the U.S. government in subtle ways, NGOs.

There are a number of great organizations that are working on this but they are not nearly well enough funded. There are also a lot of private actors who are working on taking down ISIS's Twitter accounts. This is happening, but it isn't nearly sufficiently well enough funded and supported through backchannels by the U.S. government. So I think that is a key part of any kind of sophisticated U.S. strategy toward ISIS.

MODERATOR: That was good to raise. Yes, sir, right here. And you're next.

QUESTION: David Appor , IIC. Thank you very much. One—let's make two assumptions. First assumption, let's assume that Iran is as much of a threat as any other threat in the region. I know one or maybe two of the panelists assumed that that was so, and that it was so obvious that we don't have enough time to argue it. But for the moment let's just assume that is right.

But let's assume one other the thing. Let's assume that given the arc of U.S. involvement in the Middle East broadly, certainly in Iraq, I don't see why anybody in the region would assume that the U.S. would sustain—I think this is a point you made, actually—the U.S. would be able to sustain an occupation or something kind of like an occupation for any even medium-term period.

Isn't the necessary implication of those two assumptions that ultimately we need—we're seeking a partition of Iraq? Isn't that a necessary implication? And if that is a necessary implication of those two assumptions, then does it—do we still care how Sunnis in that small Sunni state above Baghdad would defend themselves, whether it's with or without the generals from the region who have defected to IS? Aren't we essentially ultimately seeking a partition of Iraq?

MODERATOR: Was Vice President Biden right, Max?

BOOT: Well, in the first place, let me just take issue with the loaded word, occupation, because of course nobody is in favor of "occupation." But you tell me. I mean, U.S. troops have been in Kuwait since 1991. Are they occupying Kuwait? I don't view it that way. I view them as being a stabilizing force that's enhancing regional security.

So just because we may have troops in the area doesn't necessarily mean we are occupying. And I think there is, for example, there is a lot to be said for a long-term U.S. military presence in the KRG where the Kurds would love to have us, and it would be a way for us to influence events in Iraq regardless of what the central government in Baghdad thinks.

But in terms of, you know, should we be partitioning Iraq, I don't know that a partition necessarily is the solution. And certainly by itself it's not going to solve anything, because if ISIS remains in control of the Sunni part of Iraq and the Quds force remains in control of the Shiite part of Iraq, that's a problem. That's not the solution because you're basically handing Iraqi oil wealth to Iran and you are handing the Sunni population over to ISIS.

So, I think there is an argument to be made now, as I was making before, that I think there is something to be said for greater decentralization, greater autonomy in Iraq, especially for the Sunni region, as a way to get the Sunnis to fight against ISIS. But then we still have to be concerned—even if that were to be the case, we would still have to be concerned about who governs in the Shiite region, which again, includes the vast majority of Iraq's oil wealth. We can't simply hand that over to General Soleimani and his proxies in Iraq.

So I think, autonomy can be some kind of greater autonomous relationship unless—and certainly we should be paying less heed to the central government in Baghdad to the extent that it's under Iranian domination. We certainly should not be funneling all of our military aid through them so that it can then go to help support Shiite militias. We need to be helping the Sunnis in particular on our own, if necessary, even if the government in Baghdad is not in support of that.

But—so I think we certainly should not—I mean, it's a complicated answer because we should not wrap ourselves around this totem pole of Iraqi sovereignty and refuse to do anything that undermines the "Iraqi sovereignty," which is more nominal than real at the moment. But at the same time, we shouldn't imagine that there is some kind of magic partition solution which will make all of our problems in Iraq go away.

QUESTION: Hi, I'm Penny Star with CNS News. Given what you've said about Iran and their domination in all of this chaos, what kind of impact would a deal with Iran, which the Obama administration is trying to broker at this very moment, and today is the deadline, what impact will that have if they come to some deal on this whole scenario you've spoken about? Thank you.

MODERATOR: What if there's a deal tonight tonight, Audrey?

CRONIN: Well, this is where that multilevel game comes into play, and I think that a deal on a global level is better than the alternative of no deal that allows the Iranians to move even more quickly to being armed with a nuclear weapon. And I don't necessarily seeing it change—see it changing the dynamics in the region dramatically, the dynamics at the other two levels, the regional and the local level. So, I mean, that's my position. Other folks in—you know, up here may disagree.

But on the other question, on the question of occupation. I think there is a difference between having troops in a place and stationed in a base, and having them in a conflict area where they are actually carrying out operations against domestic members of the indigenous population. That is what I personally mean by an occupation, something that is contested. And, you know, I think that is something that would be more likely to be the case in Iraq than as is currently the case in Kuwait.

MODERATOR: Janine, would an Iran nuclear deal that perhaps legitimizes Iran, embolden them around the region? Or would they say, well, now we are semi-admitted back into the community of nations and we'll begin to pull back?

DAVIDSON: The thing that would embolden Iran the most and turn them into the most hostile actor is the alternative to the deal that people are promoting, which is bombing Iran. That sets the clock back three years at best, compared to this deal that everybody hates, everybody loves to hate, which puts 10 to 15 years on the clock.

And so, best case scenario, or I would say least worst case scenario—all these options are bad, it's a difficult problem—but, is that it creates some space. If there is no deal, if—or if there is another drumbeat for bombing Iran, it's just going to make things a lot more heated in the region. It's going to give the actors across the region even more justification for wanting to get their own nuclear weapons. And it's just—I mean, I think that we are playing with fire.

MODERATOR: Max, is it harder to fight Iran's malign influence if we've got a nuclear deal with them?

BOOT: Yes. Because I think it will be seen as putting the American imprimatur on the Iranian power grab throughout the region, especially because the terms, well, A, they are not going to announce a real deal tonight. At most what they will announce is some kind of vague principles that—with all the hard stuff remaining to be ironed out. And the fact that it is not been ironed out in 18 months suggests to me they may not ever reach a deal, even on the extremely generous and liberal terms that the United States is offering Iran.

But if we were to reach some kind of deal on the terms that have been leaked, where it would maybe somewhat constrain the Iranian program for maybe a decade but allow them to have thousands of centrifuges, not come clean about their past nuclear activity, not allow unfettered inspections, not force them to take reprocessed fuel out of the country, if under all those terms we then agree to their primary demand, which is to lift the multilateral sanctions right away, this would be seen as a stunning capitulation, not only in Israel but in the Sunni Arab states.

And I think it would in fact make the situation worse because I think the obvious Saudi counter move is that they will go nuclear themselves if they see that the United States is acquiescing in a nuclear program in Iran. So that to my mind is actually a pretty frightening scenario.

MODERATOR: Okay, we've got just a little over five minutes. I thought I saw question in here somewhere. Does anybody—and then I saw someone back there. But I think you're next—you're willing to step up.

QUESTION: Yuser Fasly , DOD. I'm—I find it interesting that you all kind of have this view of Iran, the Iranian bogeyman that's kind of, in my personal opinion, stuck in the 1980s. In Afghanistan the areas that have strong Iranian influence, like Mazar-e-Sharif, are actually the most stable right now and have been for a while.

But my actual question is, why hasn't there been a focus on Saudi Arabia, as those people —that Salafist ideology is actually coming from Saudi which fuels ISIS, and also lots of money from Saudi has been what fueled ISIS. So, I find it interesting that no one has mentioned Saudi as a part of the problem as opposed to part of the solution.

BOOT: Well, I think the reason why we tend to focus on the Iranian bogeyman, as you call him, is because in Iran the customary chant of the leadership, akin to heil Hitler in Nazi Germany, the customary chant in Iran is death to America.

And in fact, fighting the United States has been a defining characteristic of the Iranian Revolution ever since that little incident you may recall, even though it happened a while ago, called the Iranian Hostage Crisis, which was followed by unceasing Iranian orchestrated attacks against U.S. targets in Lebanon, including the deaths of hundreds of our Marines and embassy personnel and bombings of our embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, the kidnapping of our citizens, followed by Iranian terrorist attacks on American and other targets throughout the region, most recently in the last decade when Iran has been directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American servicemen in Iraq, an account that remains to be squared.

That is why I, among others, am pretty concerned about the so-called Iranian bogeyman, as you put it, because Iran has been waging war on the United States and has been doing so pretty successfully, as well as waging war on our ally Israel, as well as waging a war on our moderate Sunni Arab allies in the region, trying to undermine all of them and trying to achieve a position of predominant influence in the region.

That is not to say I am not worried about things that Saudi Arabia may do, although I think that Saudi Arabia has done much better in countering terrorist financing and in countering support for terrorist interests. They are—they're not 100 percent pure, neither are the Emiratis and others, but by and large the Saudis, Emiratis and others are much more closely aligned with American interests in the region than Iran, which is a revolutionary power which is trying to take over the region.

And that is a clear and present danger to the United States and our allies. I hope that's a clear enough explanation of why I am concerned about this so-called Iranian bogeyman.

MODERATOR: Janine, I feel like we will be remiss if we don't discuss Turkey. What happened to Turkey? At first they were gung-ho on getting rid of Assad. I haven't heard anybody really mention that they should play a role as one of the regional powerhouses here. What should they do about the rise of ISIS, especially in Syria? And what's happened to them, where are they?

DAVIDSON: That's a good question. At a minimum, they need to be worried about the border, which I think is a bit of a—is a positive development of late. And they've got—they have a spillover problem as well. I mean, they've got refugees that we could be helping them with. But on the other hand, you know, Erdogan has not been exactly a big part of the solution here.

I mean, you know, if you go to Europe he's technically their NATO ally, so what happens if there's, you know...

MODERATOR: But why not? What calculation is he making not to play—to seemingly play almost no role here besides taking care of refugees...

DAVIDSON: I mean, I don't know what's happening behind the scenes in terms of his pushing and pulling, but, I mean, his primary problem—and you guys can chime in here—is that he wasn't going to jump in with both feet unless the target was also Assad. And so, again, we have a Rubik's Cube of problems here with respect to America's interest because you can do one thing at a time, you can't do everything at the same time, and you can't get all the coalition members lined up against the crocodile closest to the boat, as my husband would say, if they're still having individual agendas.

MODERATOR: Okay, we've got time for one more question. Before we take it, I want to remind all participants that this meeting has been on the record. Did I see someone? Yes...

(UNKNOWN): Now we know.

MODERATOR: I know. Maybe I...


QUESTION: I have a very short question (inaudible). What effect does what happen in the Middle East have on our other allies, especially Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam, when they see what in the Middle East is put very shortly: we screw our friends and—yes, screw our friends, and are nice to our enemies?

BOOT: I just—I actually coincidentally just happened to return from a trip to Japan and meeting with some government officials there about a week ago. And I think there is a lot of concern. I think when Obama allowed the red line with Syria to be crossed with impunity, I think that was a devastating blow to American global leadership and credibility, which resonates from Ukraine to the South China Sea everywhere. I think our allies are wondering to what extent can they trust our security guarantees anymore.

And I think to some extent, the fact that they can't trust us anymore in some cases does have a potentially positive impact because you are seeing Japan, for example, start to spend a little bit more on defense and trying to do a little bit more for their own security when they are facing—when they are intercepting, you know, something like 800 Chinese flights a year bordering their airspace. So they feel the threat pretty keenly there and are starting to do more.

But I think overall, you know, cards are on the table. I am a big believer in the Pax Americana. I believe that the United States' role in global leadership since 1945 has been the greatest force for good in that entire period. And I'm very worried about where we stand right now because I think that the image, that reputation of the United States standing in the forefront of global security has been tremendously undermined in the last several years.

And I think that makes the world a more dangerous place and emboldens aggressors, whether Russia or China, to act up in their neighborhoods, to say nothing of the incredible mess in the Middle East, which is almost beyond comprehension at this point.

MODERATOR: Audrey, Janine, we have got one minute left. Does anyone want to get in here?

CRONIN: Well, I would say that U.S. prestige and credibility is not zero- sum, that some allies feel one way, some feel another way, that I wouldn't generalize in every case, in every capital as to how they react to what we're doing in the Middle East with respect to what's happening in Asia.

I—you know, there are some things that you have said, Max, that I sympathize with. I think we do have to be clearer about exactly what our interests are and how we are pursuing those interests. But I actually think that if you were in Tokyo or in Seoul or another major capital within Asia, you'd probably have more concern about the degree to which we are squandering our economic resources in one region versus another.

MODERATOR: Janine, you have got 30 seconds.

DAVIDSON: Yes, sir.

MODERATOR: And stay on time.

DAVIDSON: I also am a big believer in American leadership in the world. I do think we have been a force for good. That doesn't mean we haven't messed things up here and there, that we aren't sometimes ham-fisted when we do it.

That said, being a leader is not always the easiest thing. So, not acting in places like Syria can resonate and have people question whether our security guarantee is as strong as it was, and you hear that in Japan and elsewhere. But then, also overreacting and being so heavily engaged in the Middle East for 10 years also had an effect when I was in the Pentagon. Are you too bogged down? So it's like you can't win, right? You can either go all in and get accused of being distracted, or do nothing and get accused of—well, doing nothing.

MODERATOR: I want to thank all of our panelists. This is been a very healthy, spirited discussion. I think we got some good...


I think we've got some very good policy options to kick upstairs. Thank you all for coming, and this concludes the event.

Top Stories on CFR


The meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Moscow helped both give the impression of a united front, but underlying tensions were also discernible.

Immigration and Migration

Edward Alden, the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at CFR and Ross Dist Visiting Professor at Western Washington University, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the crisis at the U.S. southern border and the domestic debates over U.S. immigration policy.


The mass protests that have rocked Peru since December threaten to upend regional supply chains, intensify migration flows, and strain Lima’s bilateral relations.