SECOND UPDATE to Blog 43, Part I: The ISIS Crisis

Back on July 30, we posted Blog 43, Part I: The ISIS Crisis. In that post we observed that on June 13 President Obama had belatedly acknowledged for the first time the existence of an threat by ISIS that demanded his attention. The action he had announced, however, was conspicuously limited—dispatching 300 military advisers to assess the situation—and he insisted the problem was a regional one posing a threat to “American interests” that was at most remote and contingent. For our part, we quoted current and former government officials who saw a far more serious and immediate danger to the United States, and we urged Republicans “ to press for the articulation of some coherent and realistic strategy” to meet that danger.

A week later, The President announced a more significant military response but one that was still quite limited: the use of air strikes to relieve the siege of Yezidi Iraqis on Mount Sinjar and to halt an ISIS advance on Erbil where thousands of Americans were resident. In an Update on August 10, we pointed out that the President was still treating ISIS as essentially a regional problem and that it was not clear if he had any strategy extending beyond Mount Sinjar and Erbil. We also criticized the President’s continuing insistence in ruling out the possibility of having to deploy ground troops against ISIS:

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….

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.

On September 10, the President finally, and with evident reluctance, acknowledged that ISIS (or ISIL as he prefers) is a threat to the United States that requires an extended military response. Even then he clung to language portraying the threat as lying in the indefinite future (“ If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region — including to the United States.”) Nevertheless, he announced the need for a campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS. What changed the President’s mind? An old adage has it that a picture is worth a thousand words, and in this case the pictures were videos of ISIS beheading two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. In the view of many observers, the videos had a powerful impact on American public opinion, leading to a consensus that ISIS was not simply another problem to be managed. Given the shift in the public’s perception, the President had little alternative to attempting to get in front of it.

In any event, the President’s address on September 10, brief but delivered in prime time, described the seriousness of the situation and at least some measure of the difficulty of finding a solution. For this we are inclined to give the President a resounding one, or perhaps one and a half, cheers. Why not three cheers? First, because the response outlined by the President has a major credibility gap: the “ground force partners ” on whom he places heavy reliance are slender reeds at best. With respect to ISIS in Syria, he called on Congress to furnish $500 million to arm and train the “Syrian opposition,” which he did not specifically identify but which was understood to be the Free Syrian Army (FSA). This is the very group for which the President’s national security advisers had, unanimously but unsuccessfully, urged support two years ago. Indeed, only this summer, Obama had derided as a “fantasy” the idea that it would have been effective to arm an opposition comprised of “farmers, doctors and pharmacists.” Yet the same farmers, doctors and pharmacists are now the linchpin of his strategy in Syria.

Moreover, quite apart from military competence, there is another problem with the FSA that has been little discussed. While the FSA has been involved in fighting ISIS to some extent, its principal adversary has always been Assad. Thus we now have the dubious task of persuading the FSA that instead of focusing primarily on Assad, they should now concentrate on our principal adversary, ISIS. Finally, as a September 11 article in the New York Times documented at some length, the President’s strategy “leaves the United States dependent on a diverse group driven by infighting, with no shared leadership and with hard-line Islamists as its most effective fighters.” The article cited analysts who observed that, “the concept of the Free Syrian Army as a unified force with an effective command structure is a myth.”

Even in Iraq, the situation is far from encouraging. Obama has expressed great enthusiasm for Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi. To be sure, Abadi is almost certain to be an improvement over Maliki, but whether he can form a truly inclusive government, and one that can command the loyalties of Sunnis, remains very much to be seen. In fact, two key ministries, Defense and Interior, remain unfilled. The Kurdish pesh merga appear to be the most effective fighters in Iraq, but they have been handicapped by the insistence of Baghdad that all weapons flow through it. We have acquiesced in Baghdad’s position with the result that much need weaponry has failed to reach the pesh merga.

The shaky quality of our “ground force partners” underscores the mistake in the President’s renewed insistence on drawing another “red line” by categorically ruling out “American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.” To be clear, no one disagrees with the President in proposing a campaign that “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” No one has urged anything approaching a plan to send hundreds of thousands, or even tens of thousands of combat troops to the area. Indeed, to suggest otherwise would be to inveigh against a straw man. On the other hand, we join those who believe that the President has gone too far in proscribing in advance a combat role under any circumstances: unfortunately, some limited number of combat troops may well needed. One possible example, noted by Senators McCain and Graham, would be the use of special forces to “conduct targeted operations against ISIS leadership.” Chairman of the House Armed Service Committee, Howard “Buck” McKeon, put it more bluntly, predicting, “This will take troops. It will not take divisions. But there’s no way around it; American boots will be standing on sand. Americans will be shot at, and they will be shooting back.”

Attempting to distance himself from comparisons with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the President offered another comparison: our counter-terrorism efforts in Somalia and Yemen via air strikes. The consensus view, which we share, is that the latter comparison did not help the President’s argument. Apart from the fact that the terrorist forces in Somalia and Yemen bear little resemblance to ISIS, the results in those countries have not been all that successful. Both are essentially failed states in which chaos is the prevailing condition.

Finally, we give the President less than three cheers because of the confusing and somewhat half-hearted nature of his request for authorization from Congress:

Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters.

* * * *

My Administration has also secured bipartisan support for this approach here at home. I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL. But I believe we are strongest as a nation when the President and Congress work together. So I welcome congressional support for this effort in order to show the world that Americans are united in confronting this danger.

The President’s claim of authority rests on the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in 2001, days after the 9/11 attacks and directed at al-Qaeda. This claim is clearly a stretch, depending as it must on an argument that ISIS is lineal descendant of al-Qaeda. Legalities aside, however, the President is clearly correct that we are strongest when the President and Congress work together, so why not ask for support outright instead of merely saying he would welcome it? The answer seems to be twofold. First, may be a fear that authorization would not be forthcoming (as appeared likely in connection to strike against Syria after its use of chemical weapons). Second, may have been a desire to spare Congressmen—principally Democrats—of the burden of voting for war (or something like it) shortly before an election.

On the other hand, the White House has asked to have the $500 million previously requested to train and equip the Free Syrian Army added to the Continuing Resolution (CR) that Congress will have to pass this month to continue funding of all government operations. A September 12 article in Roll Call, “How Obama Will Pay For His War,” reported that a draft CR providing the funding does not refer to “ISIL” or “ISIS” but merely to “Overseas Contingency Operations/Global War on Terrorism” which funded the Iraq and Afghanistan operations and is funding current operations against ISIS. Roll Call went on to explain that the OCO account is amply funded “because the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan has created room for more war spending somewhere else.” What the article did not explain was why the White House found it necessary to ask for authorization to train and equip the FSA but not the other costs of the campaign against ISIS which are ongoing, but have not even been estimated and which will be far larger.

Setting aside that puzzlement, we believe that Congress should debate the President’s proposed plan of action and, despite its manifest flaws and uncertainties, authorize the actions it contemplates. Ruth Marcus, writing in The Washington Post on September 12, summed it up. After giving the President’s plan the benefit of major doubts, she urged Congress to get off the sidelines:

However you assess the blame for the menacing disaster that is the Islamic State, Obama’s plan is the most sensible one under the difficult circumstances. Sensible, but also risky. The air campaign will only work if there are forces on the ground to capitalize on the damage inflicted on the Islamic State. The disappointing performance of the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish pesh merga so far, and the disorganized state of the Free Syrian Army, make this enterprise far from certain. Obama’s plan is a broad undertaking that could become even broader.

What happens if, a year from now, the Islamic State is bruised but still formidable, perhaps metastasizing to threaten Jordan or Turkey? That the Islamic State is a problem likely to plague the next president, and perhaps the one after that, only underscores the importance of congressional involvement — without waiting for this president to ask nicely.