Wednesday, September 10, 2014

No, Obama is not plunging neck-deep in the Big Muddy

"We don't have a strategy yet." Those words of Obama's in an Aug. 28 press conference so flipped out the foreign policy establishment and media that no one heard heard what Obama was saying.

A translation: The conditions are not yet in place for significant U.S. military action against ISIS in Syria. Our efforts now are concentrated on beginning to create such conditions.

Those who fear that Obama is poised to plunge neck-deep in the Syrian muddy (here's to you, Mr. Sullivan) might look again at how he has elaborated this point repeatedly  -- in press conferences on Sept. 3 and Sept. 5, and in his Meet the Press interview with Chuck Todd that aired Sept. 7.

Here's how he put it on Aug. 28:
...as I said to Chuck, I don't want to put the cart before the horse. And in some of the media reports, the suggestion seems to have been that, you know, we're about to go full scale on an elaborate strategy for defeating ISIL. And the suggestion, I guess, has been that we'll start moving forward imminently, and somehow Congress, still out of town, is gonna be left in the dark.

That's not what's gonna happen. We are gonna continue to focus on protecting the American people. We're gonna continue, where we can, to engage in the sort of humanitarian acts that saved so many folks who were trapped on a mountain.

We are gonna work politically and diplomatically with folks in the region. And we're gonna cobble together the kind of coalition that we need for a long-term strategy as soon as we are able to fit together the military, political and economic components of that strategy. There will be a military aspect to that. And it's gonna be important for Congress to know what that is, in part because it may cost some money.
In Talinn on Sept. 3 he again stressed putting the political horse before the military cart:
But what I’ve said from the start is, is that this is not going to be a one-week or one-month or six-month proposition.  Because of what’s happened in the vacuum of Syria, as well as the battle-hardened elements of ISIS that grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq during the course of the Iraq war, it’s going to take time for us to be able to roll them back.  And it is going to take time for us to be able to form the regional coalition that's going to be required so that we can reach out to Sunni tribes in some of the areas that ISIS has occupied, and make sure that we have allies on the ground in combination with the airstrikes that we’ve already conducted.

So the bottom line is this:  Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States.  In order for us to accomplish that, the first phase has been to make sure that we’ve got an Iraqi government that's in place and that we are blunting the momentum that ISIL was carrying out.  And the airstrikes have done that.

But now what we need to do is make sure that we’ve got the regional strategy in place that can support an ongoing effort -- not just in the air but on the ground -- to move that forward.

And last week when this question was asked, I was specifically referring to the possibility of the military strategy inside of Syria that might require congressional approval.  It is very important from my perspective that when we send our pilots in to do a job, that we know that this is a mission that's going to work, that we’re very clear on what our objectives are, what our targets are; we’ve made the case to Congress and we’ve made the case to the American people; and we’ve got allies behind us so that it’s not just a one-off, but it’s something that over time is going to be effective.

And so the bottom line is this, Ann -- it’s not only that we’re going to be bringing to justice those who perpetrated this terrible crime against these two fine young men.  More broadly, the United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision that ISIL represents.  And that's going to take some time, but we’re going to get it done.  I’m very confident of it.
In Wales, on Sept. 5: note the transition to future tense in the "third phase"of the campaign -- in Syria:
In terms of timetable, we are working deliberately.  If you look at what we’ve done over the last several months, we’ve taken this in stages.  The first stage is to make sure that we were encouraging Iraqi government formation.  Second stage was making sure that, building on the intelligence assessments that we have done, that we were in a position to conduct limited airstrikes to protect our personnel, critical infrastructure and engage in humanitarian activities.

The third phase will allow us to take the fight to ISIL, broaden the effort.  And our goal is to act with urgency, but also to make sure that we’re doing it right -- that we have the right targets; that there’s support on the ground if we take an airstrike; that we have a strong political coalition, diplomatic effort that is matching it; a strong strategic communications effort so that we are discouraging people from thinking somehow that ISIL represents a state, much less a caliphate.  So all those things are going to have to be combined.

And as I said, it’s not going to happen overnight, but we are steadily moving in the right direction.  And we are going to achieve our goal.  We are going to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL, the same way that we have gone after al Qaeda, and the same way that we have gone after the al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia where we released today the fact that we had killed the leader of al-Shabaab in Somalia, and have consistently worked to degrade their operations.

We have been very systematic and methodical in going after these kinds of organizations that may threaten U.S. personnel and the homeland.  And that deliberation allows us to do it right.  But have no doubt, we will continue and I will continue to do what is necessary to protect the American people....

You can’t contain an organization that is running roughshod through that much territory, causing that much havoc, displacing that many people, killing that many innocents, enslaving that many women.  The goal has to be to dismantle them.

And if you look at what happened with al Qaeda in the FATA, where their primary base was, you initially push them back.  You systematically degrade their capabilities.  You narrow their scope of action.  You slowly shrink the space, the territory that they may control.  You take out their leadership.  And over time, they are not able to conduct the same kinds of terrorist attacks as they once could.

As I said I think in my last press conference, given the nature of these organizations, are there potentially remnants of an organization that are still running around and hiding and still potentially plotting?  Absolutely.  And we will continue to hunt them down the same way we’re doing with remnants of al Qaeda in the FATA or elements of al-Shabaab in Somalia, or terrorists who operate anywhere around the world.

In the same press conference, he again asserted that military action in Syria would be predicated on political action:

With respect to the situation on the ground in Syria, we will not be placing U.S. ground troops to try to control the areas that are part of the conflict inside of Syria.  I don’t think that’s necessary for us to accomplish our goal.  We are going to have to find effective partners on the ground to push back against ISIL.  And the moderate coalition there is one that we can work with.  We have experience working with many of them.  They have been, to some degree, outgunned and outmanned, and that’s why it’s important for us to work with our friends and allies to support them more effectively.

But keep in mind that when you have U.S. forces, other advanced nations going after ISIL and putting them on the defensive and putting them on the run, it’s pretty remarkable what then ground forces can do, even if initially they were on the defensive against ISIL.

So that is a developing strategy that we are going to be consulting with our friends, our allies, our regional partners.  But the bottom line is, we will do what is necessary in order to make sure that ISIL does not threaten the United States or our friends and partners.
In each case, Obama has emphasized that a) military action will be calibrated step-by-step to effective political action; 2) that going after ISIL in Syria would not precede Congressional "buy-in" (which he's also suggested will be short of formal authorization); and 3) that the U.S. would act in support of Sunni-led efforts against ISIL. He emphasized the last point on Meet the Press on Sept. 7:

...it is absolutely true that we're going to need Sunni states to step up, not just Saudi Arabia, our partners like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey. They need to be involved. This is their neighborhood. The dangers that are posed are-- are more directed at them right now than they are us.

And that's part of the conversation that John Kerry's going to be having this week. I sent him there after we left-- the NATO meeting in Wales. And the good news is, I think, for the, perhaps the first time, you have absolute clarity that the problem for Sunni states in the region, many of whom are our allies, is not simply Iran. It's not simply a Sunni-Shia issue. 

Sunni extremism, as represented by ISIL, is the biggest danger that they face right now. And with that understanding, it gives us the capacity for them to start getting more active and more involved. And by the way, some of that's military. But some of it is giving political support to Baghdad and strengthening relations with Shia leaders in Baghdad. Some of it is reaching out to the Sunni tribes in Iraq and identifying who we can work with, so that they can fight their own battles to free villages and regions that, you know, where they live. So they’ve got a big role to play.
It makes sense to wonder why Obama is purporting to believe an effective "moderate" opposition can be fostered in Syria now after he declined to commit to that in 2012 and 2013. It's fair to argue, if you're not a discredited neocon, that Obama's current as well as past efforts against ISIS have been too limited. It's also not implausible that efforts to build an effective coalition will fail and that he'll be drawn into escalating without real regional support -- or that his successor will.

But as Jonathan Bernstein suggested in June 2013, "the one area of national security and foreign policy in which Barack Obama really has earned the benefit of the doubt is about slippery slopes, quagmires, and otherwise getting trapped into military adventurism that expands despite everyone's best intentions."

I do not expect him to move swiftly into military action in Syria. Tonight, I expect him pretty much to reiterate the course he's outlined in four appearances in the last two weeks, per above.

UPDATE, 9/15: Administration statements made this past weekend, as reported in the Times, reinforce the points above. First, that U.S. airstrikes will be calibrated to effective action on the ground:
In interviews and public statements, administration and military officials described a battle plan that would not accelerate in earnest until disparate groups of Iraqi forces, Kurds and Syrian rebels stepped up to provide the fighting forces on the ground. Equipping, training and coordinating that effort is a lengthy process, officials cautioned.

American officials have made it clear they do not want the airstrikes to get ahead of the ground action against ISIS, which they said would take time to mass. “This isn’t going to be ‘shock and awe’ with hundreds of airstrikes,” one official said, referring to the initial attack on Baghdad at the opening of the Iraq war in March 2003. “We don’t want this to look like an American war.”
Secondly, that U.S. airstrikes in Syria -- at least sustained ones -- are not imminent:
As described by American officials, the battle strategy calls for assembling a force first in Iraq, where the Iraqi army would be guided by 12-man teams of American “advisers” that are expected to begin operating within days, and for new arms and other assistance for the Kurdish forces. Only later would the effort expand to Syria, and the administration is pressing for a congressional vote this week on a $500 million arms package for “moderate” members of the Syrian opposition, now aimed at ISIS rather than the Assad government.

Officials acknowledged that the so-called moderate rebel forces were fractured and far weaker than ISIS. 

Related:
Why is arming a "moderate" Syrian opposition no longer "a fantasy"?
Contain, degrade, destroy ISIS? It's a timeline
"We don't have a strategy yet" is a strategy

1 comment:

  1. Sure, let's give him the benefit of the doubt. But it is worth saying that he has in the past shown a weakness for letting his cabinet get out in front of himself. Before Obama brought things back from the brink on Syria in fall 2013, he had Kerry, Power, and Hagel saying too many reckless things implying that they wanted to unleashed to carry out serious interventionism analogous to WW2. I trust that Obama is never going to willingly let himself be dragged into "stupid shit," but we should all be worried that that reluctance may not be enough.

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