In Blog 43, Part I, we discussed the ISIS Crisis and the President’s apparent failure to appreciate the seriousness of the situation and to disclose to the public his plan for responding to it. On August 7, nearly eight weeks after his initial statement on ISIS (or ISIL as the President prefers), events forced the President to break his silence and to announce, with visible reluctance, that he had authorized limited military action. Unfortunately, however, his August 7 statement, and amplifications over the two following days, gave little indication that he has yet grasped (or is willing to admit) the extent of the threat that ISIS poses not only to Iraq, and to Americans in that country but to the United States homeland.
The events that generated President Obama’s response were twofold. First, the President referred to the ISIS advance toward the city of Erbil where, he said, “American diplomats and civilians serve at our consulate and American military personnel advise Iraqi forces.” Thus, a White House official later disclosed that the President’s action was prompted by fear of “another Benghazi,” referring to the tragic (and politically damaging) attack on the consulate in that city in Libya. In fact, however, the situation in Iraq appears even more serious. The New York Times reported the next day that there are thousands of Americans resident in Erbil. Those thousands would all be at risk of brutal murder at the hands of ISIS, unless they could be evacuated by a sort of Dunkirk in the Desert. The second event referred to by the President was the humanitarian crisis enveloping “thousands — perhaps tens of thousands” of Yezidi Iraqis who had fled to the top of Mount Sinjar and who were stranded there with little or no food and water.
The response proposed by the President was not exactly a call to arms. Rather it had the tone more of an apology and a plea to his political base to forgive him for having to take any action at all. With respect to Erbil he proposed “targeted airstrikes” to halt the ISIS advance. With respect to the religious refugees on Mount Sinjar, he announced that airdrops of food and water had already been made, and that he had “authorized targeted airstrikes, if necessary, to help forces in Iraq as they fight to break the siege of Mount Sinjar and protect the civilians trapped there.” (In the course of his brief statement, Obama repeated “targeted” four times, as if someone had called for “untargeted” strikes.)
We believe that there is little ground to disagree with the actions ordered by the President. Inevitably there are some who will worry whether even those minimal steps might lead the country once again into a costly conflict in Iraq. Those worries were obviously at the forefront of the President’s mind and he went out of his way to allay them:
I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq, even limited strikes like these. I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.
On the other hand, it was not at all clear that the steps proposed were an adequate response First, what happens if the measures proposed by the President fail to achieve even the limited goals he announced? What then? Is, say, the use of ground troops ruled out even if necessary to effect the rescue of Americans in Erbil.
A more fundamental problem is that neither there nor elsewhere in the statement did the President address, or even allude to, the larger threat of ISIS to the United States. There is hardly a credible analyst who does not believe that ISIS is a serious threat to the homeland and many, perhaps most, analysts would say it is a far more potent threat than al Qaeda was before 9/11. Ignoring that threat, however, the President treated ISIS as being essentially an Iraqi problem for which we will provide “support,” rather than its being an American problem for which we, in the end, must be responsible. The President struck a similar note in an interview with Tom Friedman the following day. He did acknowledge that “We do have a strategic interest in pushing back ISIL,” adding “We’re not going to let them create some caliphate through Syria and Iraq.” But then he immediately diffused responsibility, saying “we can only do that if we know that we’ve got partners on the ground who are capable of filling the void.”
Whether the President has any real plan beyond the protection Erbil and the relief effort on Mount Sinjar is not clear. To the extent that there is a plan, it seems to consist of encouraging Iraq to form a unified government and develop a stronger security force, and for us to provide some unspecified form of assistance to that force. Even assuming steady progress in those matters, a very large and dubious assumption, timing is uncertain at best. As the President stated two days later:
I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem in weeks, if that’s what you mean. I think this is going to take some time. The Iraqi security forces, in order to mount an offensive and be able to operate effectively with the support of populations in Sunni areas, are going to have to revamp, get resupplied — have a clearer strategy. That’s all going to be dependent on a government that the Iraqi people and the Iraqi military have confidence in. We can help in all those efforts.
The pitfalls are obvious. First, the restructuring of the Iraqi government and its security force are matters over which we may have some influence, and perhaps can help, but have no control. Second, during whatever time it takes Iraq to get its act together, the extensive territory controlled by ISIS will be a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States and Europe to be plotted, rehearsed and perhaps launched. Finally, even with our help, the capacity of a “stronger Iraqi security force” is entirely speculative. And that is very dangerous.
While Obama may be correct that there is “no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq,” it is also doubtful that there is any political solution to the threat of ISIS terrorism. In the Friedman interview, Obama referred to an Iraq adopting the utopian principle of “no victor, no vanquished.” That would be difficult enough among any mix of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, but it has no application at all to ISIS. That organization of murderous fanatics must indeed be vanquished and that is a task that may well lie beyond the capacity of the revamped Iraqi security forces however we attempt to assist them. The bottom line is that, protection of the United States from attack by ISIS is simply not something that we can safely outsource to the security force of even a “unified” Iraq.
While the President’s emphatic and categorical bar to the use of combat troops may have been politically helpful, it was strategically misguided. The President has found, at his considerable cost, the unwisdom of his categorical statement of what we would do if Syria used chemical weapons (crossed a “red line”). But a categorical statement of what we will not do can equally be a mistake. To begin with, it unnecessarily arms our enemies with an assurance that gives them greater confidence and freedom of action. (For example, in the case of Iran, we are deeply skeptical that bombing Iran to attempt to destroy its nuclear capability would ever be a good idea, but we approve the leaving of that option “on the table” during negotiations.)
Beyond that, there may come a time when the President is forced to conclude that the introduction of combat troops is absolutely essential to national security. At that point, he would have to seek the support of Congress, the public, and our allies, and it will be far easier to gain such support if he does not have to climb over a self-erected barricade of rhetoric in the process.
After two days of military activity, and as the President departed for vacation, golf and fund-raising on Martha’s Vineyard, it remained unclear whether the actions he had outlined would produce the desired results, and if not, where our “plans,” if any, would then take us. Stay tuned.