Bad news keeps piling up at the White House’s doorstep on the pressing matter of the Islamic State. Obama’s persistent inability to tie the word “Islamic” to anything connected to terrorism, even when vile acts are committed by murderers boasting of their hardline Islamic beliefs, has not calmed the American public. Comments this week by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf that, when it comes to the Islamic State, “we cannot win this war by killing them,” and that more employment opportunities are what’s really needed to blunt Islamic extremism, have been laughed off by many Americans, and deservedly so.
It’s no surprise that the public’s confidence in Obama’s war against the Islamic State, called ISIS by many in the West, for Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (i.e. the Levant), is waning. A new CNN poll shows a sharp drop, with 57 percent of Americans disapproving of how the president is handling the ISIS threat, a fall of eight points since September. Now, more than six months after Obama authorized U.S. Central Command to bomb ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the president has asked Congress to sign off. Since it took the administration over two months to even find a name for this war—it’s Operation Inherent Resolve, in case you wondered—it’s not surprising that the White House has dragged its feet with Congress, too.
To be fair to Obama, the congressional debate about the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF to Beltway cognoscenti) has devolved into the exactly the partisan food-fight that many feared, and seems certain to generate more sound-bite heat than policy light. My misgivings about this White House’s repeated missteps in foreign policy notwithstanding, I advocate letting the executive act as it wishes abroad, within our laws, since defending Americans and their interests is any president’s top job, and I hope Congress approves some sort of AUMF soon.
The ISIS Political Theater Endangers Our Interests in the Middle East
Yet this is far from the only distraction at present that’s stopping the White House from keeping its eye on the ISIS ball. This problem has understandably gotten caught up in the messy issue of Syria’s seemingly endless civil war, which has killed more than 200,000, many of them civilians. Here Obama’s outsourcing of America’s Syria policy to Vladimir Putin in 2013 proved a predictable strategic debacle, but at this juncture there is little to be done: the pro-Russian and pro-Iranian Assad regime is firmly in place, the opposition is hopelessly fragmented, and Syria’s fratricide will likely continue for years to come.
Iran has been a key, if unintended, beneficiary of the sudden rise of ISIS, the JV team no more, turning into a major strategic threat in the Middle East. In Iraq, Iran’s role on the ground in fighting ISIS has been more important than anything done by U.S. or Western forces. General Qassem Suleimani, the shadowy head of Tehran’s sinister special-operations wing of the Revolutionary Guards, a man with much foreign—including American—blood on his hands, has been in Iraq so much in recent months that he’s appeared in a photo op, while any sanctions on Iranian arms shipments have been disregarded in the case of Iraq, where the West seems happy to let the Iranians do the hard work of defeating the Islamic State.
That there may be negative long-term consequences of outsourcing Iraq’s security—and to a large extent Syria’s, too—to the most dangerous hardliners in Tehran does not seem to be keeping anybody in this White House awake at night. This is perplexing, considering how much Iran features on Obama’s foreign policy agenda. Many on the Right consider the administration to be allied with Tehran already, de facto, while even those traditionally supportive of Obama’s efforts to parley with the Iranians about their nuclear program have been perplexed by how little the White House has to show for its repeated pleadings with the mullahs. The less said about the embarrassing collapse of Yemen’s government, hailed less than five months ago by Obama as his ideal counterterrorism showcase, in a military coup by Iran-backed rebels, perhaps the better.
Then there’s the related matter of the nasty public spat between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, which has occupied headlines for weeks. They clearly hate each other, and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is what happens when two vain men, smart but arrogant, whose default response to any political crisis is doubling-down, collide publicly. Whatever his faults, being a “chickensh*t,” as he was anonymously labeled by the White House, isn’t one of them, and Netanyahu is now pushing hard against his biggest foe, Iran, while Obama is doing the same against his main enemy, the GOP. The resulting political theater does no service to any coherent Western policy against Iran or ISIS.
ISIS Thugs Don’t Need Employment Opportunities
While there really is no solution to the Iran problem, short of an Operation Persian Freedom that will not happen, there is one to the ISIS threat, and it’s not more employment opportunities in the Middle East. As I explained months ago, the Islamic State is deeply vulnerable to air power, aggressively applied in coordination with Special Operations Forces (SOF), backed by excellent intelligence. However, the Obama administration has been diffident in its application of air power against ISIS, and the terrorist insurgency remains far stronger than it ought to be, given that the United States has been waging war, albeit of a low-grade sort, against it for half a year already.
Deploying a couple divisions of the U.S. Army or Marine Corps would crush ISIS quickly, but the wisdom of that is dubious, given the history of Iraq since 2003. What will degrade ISIS is U.S.-led airpower, at a higher sortie rate, in coordination with our SOF, the finest snake-eaters in the world. In a matter of months, this lethal tandem will inflict such serious losses on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, particularly on its high-value targets, that it will gradually lose operational effectiveness. We will incur losses, but the enemy’s will be hundreds-fold more. While the Islamic State will continue in some evil guise for years, it will not be a serious threat to the Middle East, if the Obama administration does what it must.
Actually defeating ISIS comprehensively will take longer, and will require seriously revamped counterterrorism policies that this administration seems unlikely to even consider. That our attorney general says he’s “not sure an awful lot is gained” by saying “Islamic” when discussing ISIS, while stating this is really all the fault of Fox News making nomenclature an issue, does not inspire confidence, particularly when Eric Holder is fond of quickly labeling crimes he cares about the result of white racism. Elements of the mainstream media are now realizing, belatedly, that ISIS is exactly what it claims proudly to be—a virulent, apocalyptic death cult grounded in a literalist reading of Sunni Islam, dumbed down for the Internet age—and it would be nice if the White House realized this, too. We will not defeat ISIS, which represents a far graver strategic threat than al Qaeda ever did, until we confront what it actually is.
We cannot expect any U.S. president to channel Jordan’s King Abdullah, who has promised the murderers of the Islamic State that they will get the punishment they deserve, but we ought to expect Obama to be more serious about the rising ISIS threat. There is no fix now save a military one. Some people just need killin’, as they say in Texas, and if anybody on earth deserves the West’s lethal force it’s the Islamic State. Delaying a real counteroffensive against ISIS, due to distractions on many fronts, only empowers our enemies in the Middle East and beyond.