Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die": Obama's Iraq-Syria Non-War War

Our Nobel Peace Prize President is looking less and less like a peace President all the time.

Here is the PBS Newshour video of his Non-War War speech yesterday, PBS NewsHour special report Sept. 10, 2014:

It's prefaced and following with commentary by Sleepy Mark Shields and David "Bobo" Brooks.

The White House has the prepared text here.

Juan Cole has a kinda-sorta hopeful take on the speech. He's hoping that Obama was basically faking it when he talked about the goal of destroying ISIS/ISIL/whatever-we-call-it-today. He hopes instead that Obama really intends to do limited containment. (Obama’s ISIL Actions are Defensive, Despite Rhetoric of going on Offense Informed Comment 09/11/2014)

Cole's arguments actually have more the sound of hoping for the best. But the thread of hope is stretched pretty thin when its based on hoping the President doesn't really mean that his war aims are what he says they are.

Then there was this before the speech:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the possibility Wednesday that U.S. troops might be committed to ground operations in Iraq in extreme circumstances, the first hedging by an administration official on President Barack Obama’s pledge that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground to battle the Islamic State. ...

Kerry reiterated that Obama has said no U.S. combat troops would be deployed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, before adding, “Unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changes.”

That formulation hasn’t been used previously by administration officials in discussing the growing U.S. confrontation with the Islamic State, and it’s sure to feed concerns that the United States may be making a greater commitment to a new conflict in the Middle East than it first intended. (Roy Gutman, Kerry: US troops might deploy to Iraq if there are ‘very dramatic changes’ McClatchy/Stars and Stripes 09/10/2014)
Uh,yes, it will feed such concerns. Although I'm sure that's what the merry trio of the bold Maverick McCain, Huckleberry "the-sky-is-falling-aaaiiii!!!" Graham, and Tailgunner Ted Cruz would love to see:

The speech was immediately criticized by some of Obama’s fiercest foreign policy opponents. Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz dubbed the speech “fundamentally unserious” on Fox News. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), using another acronym for ISIL, said on CNN that “the president really doesn’t have a grasp for how serious the threat from ISIS is.”

“The president’s plan will likely be insufficient to destroy ISIS, which is the world’s largest, richest terrorist army,” McCain said in a subsequent statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). (Lauren French, Hill mixed on Obama speech Politico 09/11/2014)
And, yes, I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked!! that the Republicans are criticizing the President In A Time Of War.

This whole think is discouraging to me because of what Howard LaFranchi says, "In presenting to the American people his strategy for 'degrading and ultimately destroying' the Islamic State (IS), President Obama essentially launched what he came into office pledging to get the United States out of: an open-ended military campaign in the Middle East." (With Islamic State speech, Obama deepens US involvement in Middle East (+video) Christian Science Monitor 09/11/2014)

LaFranchi quotes Andrew Bacevich, who takes a conscious Niebuhrian view of foreign affairs:

For others, though, Obama’s strategy in its essence is no different from what has guided the war on terrorism since the aftermath of 9/11.

“This is absolutely a continuation of the long war,” says Andrew Bacevich, a professor emeritus at Boston University and national security expert prominent for his criticism of America’s Middle East wars. “Whether or not the effort to defeat ISIS succeeds, this new intervention is not going to bring the long war to an end.”

Obama is following a familiar pattern of “use force or don’t act,” Professor Bacevich says, but he adds that force did not work in Afghanistan or Iraq and that it won’t address the roots of a challenge like IS.

“Relying on force to do what – bring stability to, democratize, pacify, and make friends with the Islamic world – does not seem with experience to offer anything in the way of a remedy,” he says. “Military action is not going to solve the larger problem of the conflict between traditional forms of Islam and a world tending increasingly towards secular modernity.”

Bacevich, who says he is not advocating inaction, insists there is a moral argument to be made for intervention against IS – but that is not what he sees Obama doing. “His argument is that ISIS poses a clear threat to the United States,” he says, “and that's wrong.”
Bacevich is his genuinely innovative writing considers the Long War to begin with the Cold War, and doesn't restrict the term to the so-called War on Terrorism. Gareth Porter analyzes the same phenomenon from the perspective of US military dominance in the world since the Second World War.

There are lots of nasty flies in this ointment.

There's Iran, with whom we entered into a de facto alliance when the Cheney-Bush Administration invaded Iraq, although that wasn't their intention in their imperial daydream about knocking of one Middle East government after the other with minimal forces, their own version of the Light Brigade celebrated by Alfred Lord Tennyson in the poem quoted in the title to this post.

Using the [US] military tool in any major way simply is not a viable option for the United States, except as a last resort. Prepositioning assets to signal intent and capability is probably the only significant role for the U.S. military at the moment, because the United States would be better served by Iran’s military bolstering both the Iraqi and Syrian governments. (Larry Goodson, Syria and the Great Middle Eastern War Army Strategic Studies Institute 07/08/2014)
There's Turkey. "It should be remembered as well that Erdogan's Turkey provided shelter, supply lines, transit rights and training space for IS among other Sunni jihadi groups fighting in Syria. The Turks are still doing this." (Pat Lang, Too many moving parts, too many Sic Semper Tyrannis 09/11/2014)

And, of course, there's Syria:

For President Barack Obama, the decision to go after Islamic State militants in Syria also creates a dilemma, as doing so could help Assad, who Obama has said needs to relinquish power.

“Whilst it’s true that attacks will serve Syrian ends, it will also serve the ends of Syrian opposition groups, whom Obama has committed to supporting,” Joshi said. The Islamic State may be weakened, “but the opposition will also be getting stronger and that's bad news for Assad.” (John Vandver et al, What can we expect from the anti-Islamic State coalition? Stars and Stripes 09/11/2014)
Then there's the bizarre predicament of targeting ISIS, which is the Syrian goverment's most powerful opposition in the civil war raging there, making us the de facto allies of President Bashar Assad's regime. But we're also backing another one of Assad's opponents in the civil war, our fabled "moderate" Sunni allies:

One major difficulty is that some Sunni nations see a need for an armed group that will protect Sunni interests against the Shiite-led government in Iraq and the Alawite-dominated government of President Bashar Assad in Syria.

“All things being equal, in a perfect universe, the Saudis would like to harness a group like IS. The problem is, IS doesn’t say, ‘Oh, sir, how high do I jump?” said Kamran Bokhari, an adviser on Middle East and South Asian affairs with the global intelligence company Stratfor.

Support for a broad offensive against the Islamic State from some key allies is likely to come only in return for greater political power for Sunnis in Iraq and stepped-up U.S. support for anti-Assad forces in Syria. That will complicate the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whom Obama has dispatched to the region to drum up support for the initiative from Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan.

Still, analysts say, the old Sunni bulwarks have little choice but to support, at least cosmetically, a U.S. coalition, since the Islamic State is at their borders and unwilling to act as a proxy for them against Shiite foes such as Iran and Hezbollah. They’ll push for the creation of a Syrian rebel force strong enough to fight both the Islamic State and the Iranian-backed Assad regime. (Hannah Allam and Jonathan Landay, Obama strategy to beat Islamic State likely to draw U.S. into years of conflict McClatchy Newspapers 09/05/2014)
That would be the Iran by which, according to Larry Goodson, "the United States would be better served by Iran’s military bolstering both the Iraqi and Syrian governments" than by direct military action against ISIS.

Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said it appears that Obama has been forced by the Islamic State’s military successes and its growing threat to undertake a serious effort to build and arm a Syrian opposition force capable of defeating the Islamist extremists with the help of U.S. air power.

“It certainly sounds like we’re more serious,” said White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, though he cautioned: “We’ve heard this so many times before, but little has come of it.”

​Obama’s language Friday on Syria reinforced the idea that crushing the Islamic State has replaced Assad’s ouster as the main U.S. priority​ in Syria, White said. ...

There are indications that the hard work to build such a force is already underway, overseen by the CIA, despite remarks by Obama last month disparaging the moderate U.S.-backed Syrian opposition as “doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth.”

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.

Free Syrian Army field commanders confirmed that the United States is providing their men with training outside Syria and with weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles. (Allam and Landay)
John Vandver et al also talk about the perspectives of various and sundry allies in spirit or in fact: Australia (who knows why?), Bahrain, Canada, France (whose Socialist President apparently loves him some war as much as he loves Herbert Hoover economics), Germany (where Angela Merkel doesn't limit her goals to impoverishing the eurozone population but also wants to make Germany a bigger military player), Great Britain (our faithful poodle in such matters), Italy (that is trying to survive Angie-nomics), Jordon (possibly maybe), Kuwait, Poland (who doesn't have any immediate eastern European concerns to worry about, except for, you know, the Ukraine crisis), Qatar (whose monarchy has been supporting Sunni opposition to our Iraqi allies and Iranian friends), Saudi Arabia (whose government and citizens continue to be major funders of violent Islamic extremism), and the United Arab Emirates.

What could go wrong in such a coalition?

Also, this from Hannah Allam, Obama’s Islamic State strategy relies on allies with own reputations for brutality McClatchy Newspapers 09/09/2014:

Whatever strategy President Barack Obama lays out Wednesday to combat the Islamic State is sure to rely heavily on buy-in from rival Muslim powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran – one a Sunni Muslim kingdom with its own grim penchant for beheadings and the other a Shiite pariah state that’s executed thousands of dissidents. ...

Virtually any action against the Islamic State inside of Syria will help the forces of President Bashar Assad, whose ouster the United States has demanded for years.

Iran, meanwhile, is what Shaikh called the “silent partner” in the coalition, too radioactive to be explicitly included but whose presence and influence are too great to be ignored.

The expectation, analysts said, is that Iran would contribute discreetly by leaning on the new government in Baghdad to make more concessions to Sunni leaders and by nudging the Assad regime in Damascus toward reviving the idea of a negotiated resolution to the crisis.

“What Iran does now will determine to what extent the other Gulf and Arab states will more visibly accept its role,” Shaikh said. “It’s a key moment.”

U.S.-Iranian talks on the Islamic State are kept very quiet, but evidence crops up in occasional leaks or news items. One recent example is the emergence of a photo that purported to show Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani with Iraqi Shiite militiamen near Amerli, where U.S. warplanes had just helped to break a months-long siege. Put more simply: Americans provided the air cover and Iranian-backed militias provided the ground forces to retake territory from the Islamic State. [my emphasis]
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