President Obama’s ISIS Strategy Isn’t Reality Based

President Obama’s ISIS Strategy Isn’t Reality Based

President Obama's response to ISIS is another example of how our ruling class couples their illusions with whatever they find it convenient to do.
Angelo Codevilla
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President Obama’s promise “to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL” may or may not end up causing problems for the Islamic State. Surely however, it further degraded our security by further engaging us in the combination of fantasy and half measures that has earned America a reputation for un-seriousness and opened hunting season on Americans everywhere.

Obama degrades America by dwelling in a politically convenient fantasy world. In his September 10 2014 prime-time speech, Obama claimed to have made America safer by combining the withdrawal of troops from abroad with the killing of Osama bin Laden and “taking out terrorists who threaten us” in places like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Obama pledged to deal with ISIL in the same successful way.

In Obama’s fantasy, ISIL is neither Islamic nor a state. But distinguishing ISIL’s doctrine from the orthodox Wahabism preached daily in Mecca and Minneapolis, and that from the Koran, is hardly possible for scholars never mind for religiously illiterate politicians. In fact, some of the world’s wealthiest and most influential Muslims think enough of ISIL’s Islamic credentials to give it countless millions of dollars as a faith-offering, thousands upon thousands of young Muslims from around the world, including the USA rush to fight and die for it, the Muslim governments of Qatar and Turkey, respectively, continue to buy and transit supplies for it, while the Islamic world’s leading intellectual authorities have not critiqued its Islamic credentials.

De facto, ISIL is a state because it controls territory larger than that of a plurality of the UN’s members, and because the people it rules prefer it to their former rulers. They do so because ISIL shares the people’s religious sect (Sunni Islam) while the leaders of the former Syria and Iraq are Alewis or Shia. ISIL conquered its territory with the help of the locals.  In Iraq, the local Sunnis helped ISIL chase away the Iraqi army, and the Kurds too, using arms given them by the US government as part of “the surge.”

But in Obama’s fantasy, as expressed by Sandy Berger, Clinton’s former national security adviser whose advice Obama solicited, our confrontation with ISIL “can’t turn into a U.S versus Sunni battle.” “It has to be us helping the Sunnis battle the Sunni extremists.” It has to be that, regardless of whether the Sunnis who live under ISIL regard their rulers as extremists or not. The locals have to look at things the way we do. They just damn well have to.

More than that, the folks in the region have to believe in and fight for entities called “Iraq” and “Syria,” to which heretofore they have shown scarce allegiance but in which Obama, like the Bushes and Clinton before him, professes to believe deeply. In his speech, he told the world that he had helped fix Iraq by brokering the new, “inclusive” Iraqi government sworn in on September 8. By supporting its efforts “to address the legitimate grievances and needs of all Iraqis”- read, the Sunnis – that government will “drive a wedge between ISIL and Sunnis.” Thus, “The Iraqi Government is taking the fight to ISIL, and will ultimately be the one to defeat it in Iraq.” Inclusiveness will do the trick, for Obama just as it did for Bush. This time, for sure.

If the hard men who now run the ISIL military, who had been Saddam Hussein’s security cadre, who marched against an Iraqi army flush with top-of-the line US arms confident that Iraqi soldiers would hand them over; if the Sunni Islamist agitators whom the American occupation of Iraq had imprisoned for shooting Americans and who now lead an ISIL Caliphate that draws countless recruits aching to behead Americans; if such people believed Obama’s speech, if they shared the Obama-Sandy Berger thesis, they would be quaking in their boots. Odds are they listened to Obama’s speech with glee.

They heard Obama promise to reduce ISIL’s revenue “from oil and assets it has plundered” and to disrupt “the flow of external donations to the group.” They know, just as any well-informed person anywhere knows, that the US government has the capacity to do just that. But they also know what Obama would have to do to accomplish it – namely institute some kind of secondary sanctions on countries (and there are a lot of them) that traffic in oil sold by ISIL – and that Obama does not have the slightest intention of upsetting these countries or the domestic US interests that deal with them. As for cutting off the external donations, the hard men of ISIL can use their financial account books as comfort-pillows, confident that Obama – and John McCain, Qatar’s favorite senator – will bring zero significant pressure on any Gulf rulers to jail their cousins who fund ISIL.

The secular and religious men of ISIL did not hear a peep from Obama about how the pipeline of food and fuel and medicine through Turkey by which ISIL survives is going to be shut down. That is because it isn’t going to be shut down and ISIL, along with its host population, will continue to eat, drink, and be well.

They heard Obama promise to strike from the air to “degrade ISIL’s leadership, logistical and operational capability, and deny it sanctuary and resources to plan, prepare and execute attack.” They know that America has an air force that could do that. Heck, they know that Saudi Arabia and Jordan together have over 400 modern fighter-bombers that, even without American attack aircraft but only with American air controllers, these could starve and kill them in an intensive campaign over a couple of months. But Obama told them that all they need worry about is the sort of thing that America has mustered against its enemies in recent years. Massive campaigns aimed at swift victory are now politically incorrect in Washington.

Obama promised to limit “ISIL’s ability to extort local populations; stemming ISIL’s gains from kidnapping for ransom.” That would be serious. But the men of ISIL can discount the threat because executing it would take physically pushing ISIL rulers out with a substantial ground force. Obama made it clear that the U.S. will not supply such a force. (Good thing too, because a US ground invasion would likely repeat the disastrous Iraq occupation policy). The Kurds fight magnificently. But they have learned to do so exclusively for Kurdistan. The Iraqi army does not, and will not, exist. Iraq has plenty of ferocious Shia militias – death squads – eager to take the equivalent of Sunni scalps. But all know that Obama will do his best to shield ISIL from the Shia. The Saudis demand it.

Again and again, Obama degraded the English language by describing his fantasy as “strategy,” as in: “our strategy will be underpinned by a strong coalition of regional and international partners who are willing to commit resources and will to this long-term endeavor.” This usage is akin to: “our strategy is to make a ham sandwich, contingent on somebody providing the bread and someone else the ham,” or “the mouse’s strategy for dealing with the cat is to place a bell around its neck.”

But Obama gave no hint as to how “regional and international partners” would be persuaded to do whatever it takes to “degrade and destroy” ISIL – nor even of what activity and what level thereof would be required to do that – any more than how any mouse might go about belling a cat.

The American people watched videos of men like ourselves being beheaded by Muslim thugs with a knife who now dispose of a state, and who are drawing unto themselves God-knows-how many would-be beheaders of Americans. The American people reasonably demanded a real campaign to destroy ISIL. What Obama delivered was yet more fantasy.

Alas, our ruling class couples their illusions with whatever they find it convenient to do, and call it “strategy.” Thereby do they advertise their impotence.

Photo by the White House
Angelo M. Codevilla is a fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace, Hoover Institution Press, 2014.
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