Part I. The National Security Strategy and The Islamic State
We believe that the assaults by the forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and by Russia and its proxies in Ukraine, represent clear and present dangers to the national security of the United States. The circumstances in each area of conflict are obviously quite different, but they have in common the absence of any clear strategy on the part of the Administration for dealing with them. Indeed, despite routine expressions of disapproval, and sometimes condemnation, the concern of the Administration more often seems to be one of almost studied nonchalance. That is clearly the tone of the National Security Strategy (NSS) issued on February 6. Apart from vague references to coalitions and partnerships, the emphasis seems more on what we will not do than what we will do. The NSS received relatively little attention in the media when it appeared, and the members of the public who have actually read it could probably fit without crowding into a rather small stadium. Yet it is an important document that should be read, if not in its full 28 pages, at least for the 2 page personal Introduction by the President. It is available here.
The NSS presents a view of the world through determinedly rose-colored glasses. It is a view that many will find, as we do, to be at odds with the realities reported daily in the news. The opening sentence of the Introduction proclaims: “Today, the United States is stronger and better positioned to seize the opportunities of a still new century and safeguard our interests against the risks of an insecure world.” Stronger and better than exactly when is not expressly defined, but the implied comparison is with the beginning of the Obama Administration. Thus, one is invited to borrow from Ronald Reagan’s famous question and ask “Do you feel safer now than you did six years ago?” We doubt that, in terms of international threats, many will answer “yes.”
In support of his claim of improved national security, the President cites the strengthening of the American economy. One may debate whether the improvement in the economy is because of, or in spite of, the President’s stewardship, but that is an argument for another day. The immediate point is that while improvement in the economy is obviously welcome, and in the long run important to our national security, it is no answer to the immediate threats in Europe and the Middle East. Turning to the international scene, the President continues:
Globally, we have moved beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that defined so much of American foreign policy over the past decade. Compared to the nearly 180,000 troops we had in Iraq and Afghanistan when I took office, we now have fewer than 15,000 deployed in those countries.
Trumpeting the removal of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan ignores some important matters.
In the case of Iraq, it ignores the fact that, on the one hand, the removal of troops from Iraq was well underway when Obama took office, and on the other hand, his precipitous removal of all troops paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State. (The President has claimed that he had no choice in the removal of all troops, but this has been refuted by many with first-hand knowledge, including former Defense Secretary Panetta.) As to Afghanistan, it ignores the fact that removing all but approximately 10,000 American troops from Afghanistan has resulted in a major upswing in attacks by the Taliban. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that, as fighting intensified, it saw twice as many fatalities on the battlefield in 2014 as in the previous year. Afghanistan has been left in a highly precarious position which will become even more precarious if the residual force is withdrawn entirely by the end of 2017 in accordance with the Administration’s timetable. Afghan President Ghani has reportedly pleaded for a slowdown in the withdrawal, but it is not clear how the Administration will respond.
In other areas, the President acknowledged some “serious challenges” but gave them only glancing attention:
Now, at this pivotal moment, we continue to face serious challenges to our national security, even as we are working to shape the opportunities of tomorrow. Violent extremism and an evolving terrorist threat raise a persistent risk of attacks on America and our allies.
Escalating challenges to cybersecurity, aggression by Russia, the accelerating impacts of climate change, and the outbreak of infectious diseases all give rise to anxieties about global security. We must be clear-eyed about these and other challenges and recognize the United States has a unique capability to mobilize and lead the international community to meet them.
As is his wont, the President fell back on the generic terms “violent extremism and an evolving terrorist threat” without so much as a hint of the radical Islam that spawns them. And a cryptic mention of “aggression by Russia,” sandwiched between concerns over cybersecurity and climate change, was unencumbered by any mention of Ukraine and or the failure of sanctions to check the appetites of Vladimir Putin. The balance of the Introduction mentions various topics that are addressed with vague generalities and aspirational goals wrapped in gauzy rhetoric. For the present, however, we will speak only of the Islamic State and radical Islam and, in Part II, of the plight of Ukraine.
The body of the NSS did refer specifically to ISIL (and to al-Qa’ida) but offered little in the way of substance and made no mention of the religious fervor that animates the barbaric warriors of the Islamic State. Indeed, the only mention of Islam is in the assurance that “We reject the lie that America and its allies are at war with Islam.” We agree with that statement as far as it goes, but believe that standing alone it is incomplete and misleading. We are not at war with Islam and its 1.6 billion followers, the vast majority of whom are peace-loving; but we are—or should be—at war with the Islamic State whose roots in Islam and the Koran are unmistakable and undeniable. As a comprehensive analysis in The Atlantic, “What ISIS Really Wants”put it:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
The Administration has become notorious for the linguistic gyrations it performs in avoiding reference to radical Islam or Islamic extremism. (Indeed, one suspects that the President invariably uses “ISIL” rather to “Islamic State” because it allows him to ignore the fact that the initial “I” in ISIL stands for Islamic.) The President doubled down on this approach on Wenesday, vigorously defending it at the oddly named and oddly constructed “White House Summit on Violent Extremism.” As a scathing column by Tom Friedman had pointed out in The New York Times on January 20:
I’ve never been a fan of global conferences to solve problems, but when I read that the Obama Administration is organizing a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism for Feb. 18, in response to the Paris killings, I had a visceral reaction: Is there a box on my tax returns that I can check so my tax dollars won’t go to pay for this?
When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. And this administration, so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia, is refusing to make any link to radical Islam from the recent explosions of violence against civilians (most of them Muslims) by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by the Taliban in Pakistan, by Al Qaeda in Paris and by jihadists in Yemen and Iraq. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd.
In attempting to explain his position at the Summit conference, the President made the remarkable argument that “No religion is responsible for terrorism — people are responsible for violence and terrorism.” Was there no one on the White House staff alert enough to remind the President of the eerie similarity between that claim and the familiar slogan of the NRA “Guns Don’t Kill People. People Kill People.” Both versions, we suggest, distort reality.
Terminology apart, the NSS utterly fails to convey the astonishing measure of success that the Islamic State has enjoyed in Iraq and Syria, controlling territory that in size approximates Great Britain, and its dynamic growth in other areas: As the Times reported on February 14:
The Islamic State is expanding beyond its base in Syria and Iraq to establish militant affiliates in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, American intelligence officials assert, raising the prospect of a new global war on terror.
Intelligence officials estimate that the group’s fighters number 20,000 to 31,500 in Syria and Iraq. There are less formal pledges of support from “probably at least a couple hundred extremists” in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Yemen, according to an American counterterrorism official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential information about the group.
Did the White House believe that such developments were not worth mentioning in the NSS or was it, worse yet, unaware of them?
Finally, and most important, the NSS fails to offer any coherent strategy for dealing with the Islamic State. There are, of course, the required mentions of working with “responsible partners” and “local partners” but they remain unidentified and their anticipated contributions left to the reader’s imagination. Nor is it at all clear what the United States is prepared to do. Lofty goals are presented with no indication as to how they might actually be accomplished. For example, “We will work to address the underlying conditions that can help foster violent extremism such as poverty, inequality, and repression. This means supporting alternatives to extremist messaging and greater economic opportunities for women and disaffected youth.” That rhetoric has the uncomfortably familiar ring of similar proposals, seldom carried out effectively, to fight domestic crime in this country. To be sure, poverty and related conditions undoubtedly are a spur to recruitment for the Islamic State. But mitigating such conditions will be a long-term prospect in which the United States is unlikely to play a major role.
Militarily, it is said that “we will train and equip local partners and provide operational support to gain ground against terrorist groups.” Apart from the undisclosed identity of the “local partners,” the extent of the effort to train and equip is left undefined as is the meaning of “operational support.” If the President’s other statements are to be believed, however, it will include few if any troops on the ground. Although a strategy of “train and equip” might have at least a tenuous chance of some success in Iraq, success of any sort in Syria seems entirely fanciful.
Lack of clarity, ambiguity and confusion were also the hallmarks of the President’s belated request for an Authorization of the Use of Military Force against ISIL. The President had consistently maintained that he did not need new authority while he carried out air campaigns against ISIL for several months. And now, while saying that he does need such authority, he has not paused to explain what has changed. (Nor has he explained why the proposed resolution would replace the 2002 AUMF adopted for the invasion of Iraq but not the 2001 AUMF directed against al Qaeda.) Not surprisingly, the President’s proposal received a chilly reception on Capitol Hill. In general, Republicans favored a more expansive grant of authority than requested by Obama and Democrats a more restrictive one. But both sides seemed equally at a loss to understand or interpret the key provision of the proposal, which states that it “does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” As Senator Bob Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, put it as mildly as possible after a meeting with Democrats:
The language is probably part of the rub with the members. It talks about no enduring combat groups on the ground” and there were questions about what that exactly means, both in the ‘enduring’ part, versus offensive combat.
One point of sharp controversy is a limitation of the authorization to a three year period. Since no one expects the struggle with ISIS to be resolved in that period, the limitation means that the issue would be set aside for the balance of the Obama Administration and then dumped at the door-step of his successor. We join with those who believe that imposing artificial deadlines on military operations (as we did in Afghanistan) is a serious mistake that incentivizes adversaries to wait us out.
There appears to be broad agreement in Congress that passage of an AUMF would be desirable, but given the differing positions as to what it should provide, that outcome is far from certain. For our part, we would favor a robust AUMF that gave the President broad authority to conduct military operations including, if necessary, ground operations. It such an AUMF proves unattainable, we would agree with those who argue that no new AUMF would be preferable to a weak one.
If limitations are required, we would urge avoiding deadlines or narrow defintions of what troops might be assigned to do. A better alternative might be simply a ceiling on the number of troops that could be committed without a further authorization. A frequent objection to authorizing any ground operations has been that we would not want to undertake anything on the scale of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is something of a straw man since no one has urged anything like such a commitment. One restriction that would still preserve considerable flexibility would be to limit the number of troops that could be deployed in the area to, say, 20,000, with further authorization from Congress required to go above that number. That is a limitation we have not seen mentioned in the media, and it might or might not prove to be practical, but we believe it is worth considering.