Blog No. 71. The Annals of Leading From Behind, Part I

Part I. The Islamic State and the Search for a Strategy

In fairness, it should be acknowledged that President Obama has never, at least publicly, described his policy as “leading from behind.” The phrase originated in a 2011 article by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker and was attributed to an unidentified “adviser” to Obama, later said to be a (still unidentified) “White House official.” The phrase was initially used with respect to American strategy in Libya, but so many found it an apt description of Obama’s approach in the Middle East generally and, indeed, throughout the world that it took hold. (That etymology will remind some of Jimmy Carter’s 1979 address, which came to be widely known as his “malaise speech” although Carter never used that word, speaking rather of a “crisis of confidence.”)

In any case, it does seem to us that the President has been attempting to lead from behind both in confronting the Islamic State and in dealing with Russia’s adventurism in Europe. The essence of the strategy appears to be to limit America’s commitment, militarily and otherwise, while encouraging others to make greater commitments. This approach worked well for Tom Sawyer in getting his friends to whitewash a fence, but its application in foreign policy is far more difficult. This Part I will discuss the Islamic State and Part II will take up the situation in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

The capture of Ramadi by the forces of the Islamic State (ISIL in the lexicon of the White House) was only the latest in the series of events indicating that our strategy, if any, is not working. There are few who claim that it is and opinion seems to be divided between those who claim we simply have no strategy and those who claim that we do have a strategy but that it is not being carried out with sufficient vigor. In the first camp, for example, is Robert Gates, former Defense Secretary, who said on MSNBC, on May 19, “We don’t really have a strategy at all. We’re basically playing this day by day.”   Similarly, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain observed “We need to have a strategy. There is no strategy. And anybody that says that there is I’d like to hear what it is. Because it certainly isn’t apparent now.”

Michele Flournoy, Undersecretary of Defense in the Obama Administration appeared to see a strategy but argued that it is not being adequately pursued: “Ultimately whatever victories we hope the Iraqis achieve will have to be sustained by the Iraqis but we have under-resourced the strategy. We need to provide more stuff for training and advising down to the battalion level rather than just at the division level. We need to provide more fire power support, more intelligence surveillance.”

Despite the mounting criticism, the Administration has clung to the position that it not only has a strategy, but that it is a “winning” one. On June 2, USA Today reporting on a meeting of our coalition partners in Paris, quoted Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken to that effect—but with a significant qualification:

In Iraq right now, we have the right strategy: a combination of coalition airstrikes, training, equipping, assisting and effective local partners. That is the winning strategy, but only if both sides of the equation are present. (Emphasis added)

The difficulty is that both sides of the Blinken equation appear to be missing or woefully lacking. On the side of our “local partners” the fall of Ramadi dramatically demonstrated the their inadequacy. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with brutal frankness in a CNN interview:

We can give them training, we can give them equipment — we obviously can’t give them the will to fight. But if we give them training, we give them equipment, and give them support, and give them some time, I hope they will develop the will to fight, because only if they fight can ISIL remain defeated.

Perhaps the most alarming—or depressing—element of Carter’s statement is the fact that, having offered a bleak diagnosis, he offered no remedy, speaking only of a “hope” the Iraqis would develop the will to fight, and saying later in the same interview that we would “try to encourage their will to fight.” We suggest that “hope” and a vague intention to be “encouraging” hardly appear to be elements of a credible strategy. And if the Iraqi forces are inadequate, the ground forces of “local partners” in Syria remain scattered and insubstantial.

At the same time, there is considerable fault to be found with our own side of the equation.   The USA Today story also reported the dissatisfaction expressed by the Iraqi Prime Minister:

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made an urgent plea at the conference for more help in his country’s battle against the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS. Al-Abadi said his military desperately needs weapons, which are slow to arrive from the United States because of bureaucratic delays. “Armament and ammunition, we haven’t seen much. Almost none. We’re relying on ourselves, but fighting is very hard this way.”

Even the pace of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria appears to be considerably less than optimal. USA Today reported that, “the coalition has conducted more than 2,600 airstrikes in Iraq since the campaign began last August.” That may sound like quite a few, but, it is far less than, by way of example, the air campaign in Kosovo, which involved 10,484 airstrikes in 78 days. Kosovo, we might add, was a matter of considerably less vital interest to the United States than destruction of the Islamic State.

In sum, the June 2 report in The New York Times of the same Paris conference made no mention of Blinken or his equation, but provided a succinct and bleak assessment:

Comments from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, State Department officials as well as Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, painted a portrait of weaknesses in the fight against the Islamic State and offered reluctant recognition, albeit clad in the neutral language of diplomacy, that coalition efforts were inadequate.

The Administration’s approach seems rooted in the conviction that the Islamic State is fundamentally a problem for Iraq and the Syrian opposition to Assad (when and if such opposition should take a coherent form), that any threat to the United States is relatively remote, and that the interest of the United States is secondary at best. There is, however, a cognitive dissonance between those convictions and the growing evidence of the threat to the homeland posed by the Islamic State. As Michele Flournoy pointed out on May 24: “[T]he truth is ISIS is a threat not only to Iraq and Syria, it is a threat to us, particularly given the flow of foreign fighters, thousands of Europeans, hundreds of Americans going into Syria, getting training, coming back at some point. This is a terrorist problem that affects us and we have to take a more forward-leaning posture.”

Flournoy’s comments underscored the warnings from James Comey, Director of the FBI on May 7. As reported in USA Today:

In a dramatic assessment of the domestic threat posed by the Islamic State, FBI Director James Comey said Thursday there are “hundreds, maybe thousands” of people across the country who are receiving recruitment overtures from the terrorist group or directives to attack the U.S.

Comey said the Islamic State, also known as ISIL, is leveraging social media in unprecedented ways through Twitter and other platforms, directing messages to the smartphones of “disturbed people” who could be pushed to launch assaults on U.S. targets.

“It’s like the devil sitting on their shoulders, saying ‘kill, kill, kill,”’ Comey said in a meeting with reporters.

Republicans have taken the threat of the Islamic State more seriously and, not surprisingly, have been sharply critical of the Obama Administration. They have, however, spoken in generalities, which may be unavoidable without the benefit of detailed briefings from senior military and intelligence officials.

In a May 29 Op-ed in The Washington Post, Marco Rubio expressed perhaps the most comprehensive and coherent views of any of the Republican hopefuls. Yet he raised as many questions as answers. For example, Senator Rubio urged the broadening of the coalition to include not only Kurds and Sunni tribes but Persian Gulf countries such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Direct dealing with the Kurds and Sunni tribes has been urged by several observers, and may be a sound idea. However, it raises serious conflicts with the Baghdad government that are difficult to assess. There are also practical and political obstacles to enlisting the support of Egypt, Jordan and Turkey and it is speculative at best how much support could be obtained.

Senator Rubio also urged, as had Senators McCain and Graham, greater direct involvement by the U.S. military;           

[T]he president should increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq and remove restrictions on their ability to embed with the Iraqi units they are training and advising. Having the proper number of U.S. forces in Iraq is crucial for both weaning the Iraqi government off its reliance on Iran for military assistance and moving toward a unified and inclusive Iraq.

Notably, and no doubt wisely, Senator Rubio declined to suggest just what the “proper number” of U.S. Forces should be. Nor are we prepared to make such a suggestion. In general, we have been sympathetic to the need for an increase in U.S Forces and, for example, we suggested that the proposed AUMF might authorize a commitment of up to 20,000 additional troops. Yet, we believe that no substantial addition of personnel should be made without a rigorous assessment of costs, risks, benefits and feasibility. For example: What exactly would the additional forces be asked to do? Are the goals realistic? Is the size of the proposed force commensurate with the difficulty of the tasks? If the proposed addition proves inadequate, what then?

Perhaps such a rigorous assessment is underway within the administration at this moment, Nevertheless, the apparent unwillingness or inability to articulate and implement a credible strategy thus far, provides little grounds for confidence. And a presidential campaign is ill-suited to the clear-eyed design of military strategies. Hence we believe that Congress should without delay seek extensive testimony, doubtless some in closed hearings, with a view to making its own appraisal of what is required. Then it might be possible, in concert with the Administration, either to define a new strategy or to find ways of enhancing our ongoing effort to make it worthy of the term strategy.