Monday, September 08, 2014

Obama's Iraq Non-War War

I watched a good bit of coverage of the ISIS situation on Aljazeera America on Sunday. It featured a parade of various supposed experts from various think tanks and security-sector companies. It would be nice if news agencies would identify potential conflicts of interest from their guests' employers or companies, especially when it comes to war. But they don't.

I'm very pessimistic on the prospects of what President Obama is billing as a non-war war against ISIS. On the one hand, he's promising to keep it limited. In his interview with Chuck Todd that showed on Sunday's Meet the Press, the President assured us, "We're not looking at sending in 100,000 American troops." Great. (Charlie Pierce's commentary on the interview called that line to my attention, What Are The Gobshites Saying These Days? Esquire Politics Blog 09/08/2014)

Emile Nakhleh in ISIS Primarily a Threat to Arab Countries Inter Press Service 09/08/2014 repeats some of the considerations that were seriously discussed by experts on Islamic and foreign policy mavens after the 9/11 attacks. Most of which have been cheerfully ignored by policymakers except to milk them for propaganda: toxic Islamist ideology abetted by US allies like Saudi Arabia, authoritarian governments in Arab countries, American hypocrisy.

Nakhleh could have added the lack of serious progress on resolving the decades-old disputes of Israel-Palestine and Kashmir, both high-profile issues in the Muslim world.

And despite his famous Cairo Speech at the start of his Presidency, Obama has not made the kind of transformative change in American foreign policy that would have achieved major progress in any of those areas. Even accepting that Obama has very much an incremental rather than a transformative leadership style, he's now definitively backed away from one of his most important achievements, which was to carry out the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq that the Bush Administration had negotiated.

The one strain of real hope I see in the current situation is that the Administration has achieved a functioning alliance with Iran. (Juan Cole, Top 5 Signs the US is de facto allied with Iran versus ISIL Informed Comment 09/07/2014) And that will hopefully increase chances for a settlement of the nuclear issues and the normalization of relations with Iran.

Jonathan Landay was providing some of the best reporting on the Iraq War when he was with Knight-Ridder. McClatchy has been keeping it up since they acquired Knight-Ridder, it seems (Hannah Allam and Jonathan Landay, Obama strategy to beat Islamic State likely to draw U.S. into years of conflict 09/05/2014):

Even limited success for this new effort, analysts say, hinges on an unenviable to-do list for the Obama administration: foster cozier relations with Iran, gamble on the so-called "moderate" Syrian rebels, strong-arm Iraq’s Shiite Muslim leaders into power-sharing with the Sunni Muslim minority, and persuade Sunni-ruled nations in the Persian Gulf region not to undermine the whole effort by striking out on their own.

And it sounds like the Obama Administration's current strategy is to try to promote it's own Syrian third-force group in Syria to oppose both the Syrian Allawite government and ISIS. Quite a circle to square! I can't say I have a good feeling about this.

The top general of the Free Syrian Army told McClatchy last week that since December secret U.S. military and non-lethal support has bypassed the group’s Turkey-based leadership and gone directly to up to 14 commanders inside northern Syria and some 60 smaller groups in the south. All of them report to the U.S. spy agency, he said.

"The leadership of the FSA is American," said Gen. Abdul-llah al Bashir, who defected from Assad’s army two year ago. [my emphasis]
The rise of ISIS is one sign of how little power the United States has shown to shape the exact course of events in the Middle East. Why this new Iraq Non-War War will turn out better, I find it hard to imagine.

Obama and his spokespeople have set ambitious goals for his non-war war against ISIS. His Vice President Joe Biden didn't even restrict the goals to the mortal plane, declaring of ISIS, "They should know we will follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice. Because hell is where they will reside. Hell is where they will reside." (Ashley Killough, Biden's warning to ISIS militants: 'We will follow them to the gates of hell' CNN 09/03/2014)

Even allowing for Biden's fondness for verbal drama, that's not exactly framing limited goals for the public or Congress.

Will McCants of the Center for Middle East Policy was on Ray Suarez' Aljazeera America show Inside Story of Sunday 09/03/2014. (How does the US plan to ‘degrade and destroy’ the Islamic State?) He stressed that Syria is the main base of operations for ISIS. So fully defeating ISIS will require military action in Syria. Referring to Biden's comment, he said, "Hell is Syria."

According to the McClatchy story linked above, the Administration is pursuing a notion of training, arming and directing "moderate" Sunni fighters against both ISIS and the Syrian government.

I'm against the level of involvement that Obama has already adopted. But I think we also need to look realistically at the situation. One of the legitimate criticisms of the Cheney-Bush invasion is that they failed to put enough troops in Iraq to stabilize the situation immediately after the collapse of Saddam's regime. That turned out to be an immensely consequential failure.

Declaring expansive aims while trying to keep direct American involvement limited also carries risks for Obama's Iraq Non-War War. He'll be under pressure from the get-go from both Republicans and Democratic hawks to escalate faster, put in more US troops, widen the scope of bombing, flood the region with more armaments, boost our dubious allies in Syria.

And given his seemingly expansive war aims, that kind of criticism will have some legitimacy.

Once again, the press and the political elites of both parties have failed badly in the run-up to the potentially very serious new escalation in Iraq and Syria.

Dan Froomkin in So We're Going to War Again, and All Anyone Wants to Talk about is the Optics? The Intercept 09/09/2014 discusses the sad role of the mainstream press and the punditocracy:

The question we should be asking ... is: Why the hell does he think [the new strategy] has any chance of working?

Granted Obama isn't talking about launching another all-out invasion. ...

But he is apparently planning on re-upping the country for another 3-year hitch in the endless war he used to talk about wrapping up.

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