Iraq, Syria, and ISIL: Americans don’t want BS, but do they want leadership?

August 20, 2014

Brian Fishman’s new article, “Don’t BS The American People about Iraq, Syria, and ISIL” has set my Twitter feed alight today, garnering a great deal of praise. And while there is some insightful thinking in the article, I found myself somewhat less enthused about it than most, and thought I would take to the Hasty Ambush blog (one of four blogs at War on the Rocks) to air my views.

I’ll start by citing up front, where I think Fishman is correct, and that is that “defeating” ISIL would require a considerable effort, far more than many whose bloodlust is up are considering. We are talking about another regional war, with all that it entails. He is also right in assessing the American people’s reticence to engage in such a war.

But that is about as far as I can go in agreement. And by way of making my disagreements clear, I will tie them to his words:

“President Obama’s policies in the Middle East have failed in numerous ways, but he is right that the paucity of our political debate is the greatest threat to our global standing.”

This is a difficult proposition to accept, especially in view of some other candidates for this claim, such as the degree to which runaway entitlement spending is hobbling the economic foundation of our leadership position and the contributions that the President’s own policy choices have made to the decline of our global standing.

“One cannot credibly argue that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 contributed to the rise of ISIL without also acknowledging that the U.S. invasion in 2003 did the same. The former without the latter is a political argument, not a policy position.”

Perhaps, but the former with the latter is still not a policy position.  However, linking the two does manage to reprise the Administration’s often chosen recourse to pointing fingers at the Bush Administration as a way of deflecting blame from its own choices. To use the author’s lingo, “Please do not step in here”…with that “we were not permitted to stay in Iraq because we could not get a Status of Forces agreement” nonsense when the President was campaigning every day that he was ending the war in Iraq as he had promised.  There has been a tendency in this Administration and among its supporters to paint itself into a corner through its own choices and then throw up its hands and say “there are no good options left”. This not leadership, it is resignation.

“Reading most of the media coverage over the last few weeks, you’d be forgiven for thinking President Obama was seeking to defeat ISIL in detail, but had chosen ineffectual means. But that is not his goal, even considering the coordinated U.S., Iraqi, and Kurdish effort to retake the Mosul Dam from ISIL.”

Perhaps I spend too much time consuming the media of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, but even there, I have not found any real media coverage suggesting that the President was trying to and or failing in the effort to defeat ISIL. Quite the contrary. What I have seen is fairly straightforward reporting of the very limited ends of the President’s approach and the concomitant limited means applied to gaining them. It is exactly the scope and moderation of the response that have me thinking more is required. The savage murder of a reporter in the desert for the consumption of video jihadists is not sufficient reason to widen the scope of the effort. The sufficient reason to widen the scope of the effort is the true evil behind the act itself, and the true evil which animates other atrocities of ISIL and their eventual political goals. I realize I would lose my realist credibility with my WOTR masters if I started to ramble about evil as a rationale for action, but this evil is different. It is evil that we had a part in enabling and setting loose. We cannot and should not address all instances of genocide and terror around the world, but we certainly have an interest and dare I say it, a responsibility, to address them in a country that we invaded and occupied.

“The larger problem with Mansoor’s vision is that ‘rolling back’ ISIL is an unstable and untenable policy at this time.”

My issue with this statement is that it sets up kind of a false choice, one that suggests that we can either continue with the President’s chosen strategy or move forward with Mansoor’s roll back approach. I’ll defer to Fishman’s assessment of the military value of Mansoor’s plan, but I fail to see how that eliminates the continued use of air power to pin down and isolate ISIL forces.  Is this mission creep? Yes. But that does not make it not worth pursuing. One of the lessons I learned from the past eleven years is that as difficult and expensive as the no-fly zones were in Iraq, they were substantially less difficult and less expensive than the war that replaced them. The American people need to be led. They need to have it explained to them how this group developed, where they are operating, what they are doing and why we must contest it. Most importantly, they need to be told what the possible costs of inaction are.

“One thing is clear about President Obama: right or wrong in his decisions, the guy does not want to be fed a bunch of bullshit. And many of the arguments made about ISIL, Syria, and Iraq these days are spurious —even when used to advance reasonable policy recommendations. The arguments to ‘roll back’ ISIL fall into this category. Obama recognizes his critics are, intentionally and unintentionally, trying to back him into mission creep and he intends to avoid that outcome. As a result, he does less than he should (and maybe would) if he could manage the domestic politics and the U.S. Congress better. Whatever Obama’s mistakes, it is hard to blame him for being gun-shy politically after watching the Benghazi shenanigans for two years. If Obama’s political opponents talk impeachment over an incident like Benghazi, what would they say if U.S. weapons provisioned to Syrian rebels wound up in the hands of ISIL, as is almost certain to happen to some degree with a large scale weapons delivery program?  This is why politics should stop at the water’s edge: partisan tussling makes for bad national security policy and makes us less safe.”

Are Mr. Obama’s critics incapable of recommending policy actions that differ from his without the charge of trying to trying to wound him politically? I am not trying to “back” the President into mission creep, I am trying to get him to more publicly define a broader mission. As for the “politics should stop at the water’s edge” comment, I find its placement somewhat ironic given the tenor of the sentences that precede it.

“No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.”

Fishman may be right, and he may be right in suggesting that one is not possible. But that does not mean that only what is being done, can be done.

“Our discourse is too broken. Short of a major terrorist attack, our leaders do not have the ability to produce consensus. And without real national consensus to sustain a strategy, there is no viable mechanism to defeat ISIL.”

I fear Fishman is correct here, and so I would suggest not attempting to define and implement a strategy to “defeat” ISIL until and unless they become far more threatening to us. But are there no strategies available to limit the damage they can do? Is there no use of military force that keeps them pinned down and busy? I will defer to the collective wisdom of the authorities on jihad with respect to the fly-paper theory, but does common sense not suggest that where there are a number of people concentrating with the express purpose of executing a political agenda antithetical to your national interests, that you might as well address them where they are concentrating?

“Advocating the defeat of ISIL over the short-term without acknowledging what will be necessary to achieve that end is a recipe for mission creep. Mission creep is a recipe for policy failure because the American people will not allow sustained investment in a policy they did not commit to originally.”

There is a complete absence of any suggestion in Fishman’s approach that the President has any responsibility to lead the American public. Put aside for the moment the question of “defeating” ISIL and go back to my previous suggestion of isolating/containing them. Could the President not “sell” this to the American people? Could he not explain to them the nature of our responsibilities there? Could he not explain to them in detail, the political aims of ISIL in a way that America could grasp?  Could he not recognize up front the costs and sacrifices of the past thirteen years, and why failing to act now could condemn us to future sacrifice on a similar scale?

“This is not a call for pacifism; it is a call for fighting to win, which requires sustained commitment, which requires forthrightness in our discourse about whether to choose war. We should only fight if we are fighting to win, and we will only win when we commit as a country—not 51 percent, or the viewers of one cable news station or another, or because one party or faction has managed to back a president into a political corner.”

I return again to the No Fly Zones over Iraq. We were clearly not “fighting to win”, but we were fighting nonetheless. And that fighting was worthwhile, especially in comparison to what followed it. So while I appreciate the warrior spirit animating Fishman’s view here, I think it is an incomplete representation of what it is we use military power to do.

I appreciate Fishman’s considerable expertise in the world of jihadist organizations, and I completely agree that trying to defeat ISIL would require an effort that we as a country, are not likely to support. Where we differ is in the energy and emphasis being applied by the Administration to options that do not rise to this level, and the utility thereof.


Bryan McGrath is the Managing Director of The FerryBridge Group LLC, a defense consultancy, and is the Assistant Director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. 


Image: White House