Sunday, September 14, 2014

Two questions about Obama's thinking about ISIS

Peter Baker has a purported insider's view of Obama's thinking about the ISIS crisis™, based on interviews with 10 people present at two recent dinners the president held with foreign policy experts and journalists. Like most such exercises, it's not particularly revealing (with one exception noted at bottom), as the president is putting best foot forward with his guests and the guests assess him through a partisan prism (Richard Haas is respectfully negative, Jane Harman equivocally positive).  

I was struck, though, by two questions Obama's not-so-private exegesis left unanswered. I don't doubt that he has considered these questions in depth, but he has not seen fit to address them directly.

The first concerns his decision to ramp up aid to "moderate" Syrian rebels and support them with air strikes as appropriate.
If his thinking has evolved, Mr. Obama admitted no errors along the way. While some critics, and even his former secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have faulted him for not arming moderate Syrian rebels years ago, Mr. Obama does not accept the premise that doing so would have forestalled the rise of ISIS.

“I have thought that through and tried to apply 20-20 hindsight,” he told some of his guests, as one recalled. “I’m perfectly willing to admit they were right, but even if they were right, I still can’t see how that would have changed the situation.”
This snippet is somewhat out of context -- I doubt Obama is literally conceding that those who wanted to arm Syrian rebels earlier and more strongly were right -- but it highlights a question that his current policy shift raises: If backing chosen Syrian rebels more fully in 2012 and 2013 wouldn't have significantly have improved conditions in Syria, why will doing so now be more successful?

I suspect two partial answers. First, as I've noted before, Obama has suggested that ISIS's dramatic recent successes will scare the Sunni powers, particularly the Gulf states, into acting in concert rather than at cross-purposes.

Second, there may well be less to Obama's policy shift in Syria than meets the eye. How many times now has he announced more vigorous aid to vetted Syrian rebels? This is at least the third time, and the effort has moved at a snail's pace because there are hundreds of Syrian militias, their allegiances shift constantly and their values and political beliefs are opaque to us and probably in many cases to themselves. At the same time, backing for selected groups has increased, to the tune of about $2 billion so far -- notwithstanding that according to Ryan Crocker, who is probably in a position to know, "we don't have a clue" who is who among them.

As for airstrikes in Syria, I suspect Obama is more claiming prerogative than announcing immediate intent -- as one snippet in Baker's piece suggests:
Mr. Obama acknowledged it would be a long campaign, one complicated by a dearth of intelligence about possible targets on the Syrian side of the border and one that may not be immediately satisfying. “This isn’t going to be fireworks over Baghdad,” he said.
The second question concerns Obama's purported reading of ISIS's intent and global strategy. Why are they publicly beheading Americans (and now, alas, a Briton)?
But the president said he had already been headed toward a military response before the men’s deaths. He added that ISIS had made a major strategic error by killing them because the anger it generated resulted in the American public’s quickly backing military action.

If he had been “an adviser to ISIS,” Mr. Obama added, he would not have killed the hostages but released them and pinned notes on their chests saying, “Stay out of here; this is none of your business.” Such a move, he speculated, might have undercut support for military intervention.
Many have argued that ISIS wants to draw the U.S. in as a declared enemy, as doing so globalizes the conflict as Caliphate vs. Crusaders and gives a tremendous jolt to recruitment and support. Osama bin Laden publicly salivated at the prospect of the U.S. invading Iraq.  Of course there are important differences, as Osama was not in Iraq to bear the brunt, al Qaeda was not newly threatening surrounding countries, ISIS's Sunni neighbors genuinely loathe and fear the group, and Obama appears determined to predicate U.S. support on local Sunni action and to keep U.S. troops off the ground.

But still, the questions remain: is ISIS ill-served by declared U.S. enmity? And does announcing to the world that the U.S. is at war with the group enhance or degrade U.S. security?

There may be good answers to those questions. But Obama has not thus far addressed them publicly.

*          *          *

Footnote: Baker's article did relay one important message that Obama probably wants to transmit to Assad:
He made clear the intricacy of the situation, though, as he contemplated the possibility that Mr. Assad might order his forces to fire at American planes entering Syrian airspace. If he dared to do that, Mr. Obama said he would order American forces to wipe out Syria’s air defense system, which he noted would be easier than striking ISIS because its locations are better known. He went on to say that such an action by Mr. Assad would lead to his overthrow, according to one account.
Now that's interesting.

Update, 915: More indications this weekend,as reported in the New York Times, that the administration means to go slow in Syria:
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. 
Obama phones it in
No, Obama is not plunging neck deep in the Big Muddy
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

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