Against all odds: Obama, the War President

Against all odds: Obama, the War President

J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the traps in the newest coalition to enter into hostilities in Iraq – this time against the Islamic State, rather than the Iraqi government.

Against all odds: Obama, the War President

J. BROOKS SPECTOR contemplates the traps in the newest coalition to enter into hostilities in Iraq – this time against the Islamic State, rather than the Iraqi government.

Oh no, has the globe suddenly been rolled back in its rotations to the year 2003, or even 1991? At first blush, it would be easy to see the newest hostilities in the Middle East as a kind of diabolical rerun of George HW Bush’s American-led coalition of Desert Storm fame. Those hostilities liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army, and then soundly defeated and chased that army all the way back to Baghdad – but then, crucially for later events, did not bring down Iraq’s capital or act decisively to end the Baathist regime.

Or, do the newest hostilities, perhaps, resemble more George W Bush’s 2003 coalition of the willing that deposed Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, in an invasion that was triggered by the putative presence of those weapons of mass destruction, er, delusion. Yes, that invasion liberated Iraq from a thoroughly unpleasant, authoritarian ruler; but, in the process, it helped pop the cork of a dangerous bottle troubled by all the growing pressures inside it. That, in turn, helped unleash the poisonous mix of tribal, ethnic, racial, religious, political and ethnic rivalries – and much worse that led to many of today’s problems. And that, in turn, has helped create the chaos now spreading across much of Syria and Iraq.

Early this year, the self-styled Islamic State/ISIS/ISIL (IS) rose up out of an opposition on the part of groups of Sunni Iraqis against an increasingly sectarian, Shiite-based government in Baghdad. In part, it arose out of what had previously been labelled “Al-Qaeda in Iraq”, but it also gained a strong foothold in the eastern part of Syria, with support from more extreme groups opposing the Bashar al-Assad regime there in the midst of that country’s devastating, tragic civil war.

In Syria, especially, IS was able to take advantage of that country’s brutal civil war that was a final gasp of the Arab Spring. It did this largely by out-manoeuvring other less extreme opposition groups being cheered on by the West, but only fitfully supported by them in any meaningful way with arms or other support and supplies. As IS moved outward from their initial base areas, they fought those other opposition groups as well as a Syrian government that has largely ceded eastern Syria to them. Advancing further, they have taken control of much of the northern half of Iraq, battling the autonomous region of the Kurds and their militia, the Pesh Merga, as well as a whole patchwork of other ethnic groups.

Moreover, it consistently defeated a demoralised Iraqi army that surrendered vast stores of military hardware previously supplied to them by the US. Along the way, IS has largely financed its advance by sales of petroleum raised in oil fields in eastern Syria and sold illicitly; via a ‘tax’ on a considerable traffic of priceless antiquarian relics looted from some of the most ancient human settlements across northern Iraq; and through an extortion ring preying on any businesses operating in areas they control.

IS’ depredations against Shia Iraqis, the Iraqi army POWs, Chaldean Christians, Kurds, Turcoman settlements and the Yazidi began to tip the scales in the West towards dealing with IS more aggressively, so as to defend the tottering regime in Iraq (and more problematically to give heart to that similarly battered moderate opposition in Syria). Still, the real trigger for stepped up western action seems to have been a run of public beheadings of several western reporters and aid workers – events that quickly went viral on the Internet.

In an effort to respond to a rising climate of indignation against IS, leading to a growing clamour by a number of other politicians and commentators that he must do something, as well as growing concerns on the part of many neighbouring nations, on 10 September, US President Barack Obama finally announced a broad plan of action against IS. This plan included a stepped up bombing campaign against IS targets; training and resupply of those who would fight against IS within Syria and Iraq; the building of a coalition of other nations who would participate in this effort (most especially neighbouring Arab states); and a larger humanitarian effort to assist the beleaguered communities being assailed by IS.

In recent days, carefully targeted bombing runs against IS targets have been carried out by the US, in tandem with pilots from several Persian Gulf states (including a female pilot from the UAE), as well as the French air force. Other nations have now come on board as well, including Australia and the Netherlands. At this point, UK Prime Minister David Cameron is determined to join in after gaining parliamentary support for a combat role. As a result, he has summoned MPs back to Westminster to consider the matter (and from his and others’ points of view, to join in the effort against IS).

In this, Cameron has been mindful of his failure to gain support for the putative attacks on Syria in the wake of the Assad government’s almost certain use of poison gas on Syrian civilians and rebel positions in the country’s civil war. By contrast to the Syria miscue, this time around it seems more likely – especially given the fact British citizens have also been targeted in those beheadings captured on video and distributed via social media.

As reported in the New York Times, speaking at the UN General Assembly’s opening earlier in the week, Obama “charted a muscular new course for the United States in a turbulent world, telling the United Nations General Assembly in a bluntly worded speech that the American military would work with allies to dismantle the Islamic State’s “network of death” and warning Russia that it would pay for its bullying of Ukraine. Two days after ordering airstrikes on dozens of militant targets in Syria, Obama issued a fervent call to arms against the Islamic State – the once-reluctant warrior now apparently resolved to waging a twilight struggle against Islamic extremism for the remainder of his presidency.

Today, I ask the world to join in this effort,” Obama said, seeking to buttress a global coalition that he said would train and equip troops to fight the group, starve it of financial resources, and halt the flow of foreign recruits to its ranks. Those who have joined IS should leave the battlefield while they can, Obama said, foreshadowing the blows to come. “For we will not succumb to threats, and we will demonstrate that the future belongs to those who build, not those who destroy.” The brutality of the militants, he said, “forces us to look into the heart of darkness”.

For a man who had campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to end the long-running military engagements in both Afghanistan and Iraq, this return to the battlefield for America – even in this new, more limited role – also means that his promise, effectively, to chase IS fighters right “to the gates of hell”, as the Bard would have said, also means it is likely the Obama administration will hand off some unfinished military business against IS to Obama’s successor in 2016, whoever he or she is.

This kind of talk, let alone the resulting bellicose actions that have been the result, must clearly be a profoundly dispiriting development for Obama, a president often dubbed “no drama Obama”, and a politician seemingly possessed by a need to find the carefully negotiated middle ground on so many other issues. Instead, this seems a return to the chiliastic language that has so often inhabited presidential language historically. These are the kind of words, for example, found in John F Kennedy’s inaugural address in which he had pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden” in defending democracy and supporting allies, but that eventually helped nudge the country down the pathway to its torturous war in Vietnam.

While few if any commentators predict that kind of outcome in the current struggle against IS, this newest effort has a tragic strategic flaw embedded in it. This most recent effort against IS – as well intentioned as it may be – suffers from a publicly expressed lack of any acceptable outcome, save for the total annihilation of IS at some distant point. Moreover, this strategy is underpinned by a reliance on believing in the straightforward motives of all those many competing parties in combating the IS.

Consider, for example, that defeating IS is also in the interest of the al-Assad regime, even though that same regime remains totally at odds with the goals and interests of the US and its partners in so many other ways. Similarly, while Iran is not a formal part of this newest coalition, and even though, speaking at the UN, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani had some harsh words about how that Iraqi bottle first got uncorked, and despite the fact that Iran is at odds with the West over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, as the region’s leading Shia nation, it would be a major beneficiary of the defeat of IS’s Sunni adherents.

Just to make things more distressing, the 14 September issue of The Economist offered a handy chart to track whom is at odds with whom, or allied with whomever. In fact, it demonstrates, far better than a text could, just how tangled these alliances, feuds, fights and sub rosa connections are in efforts to deal with IS – and how difficult it will be not to trip over all these conflicting loyalties, motivations and antagonisms.


Still, all is not yet entirely lost. In what might have been a particularly surprising turn of events, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to ban individuals from foreign nations from joining mercenary insurgent groups like IS. Actually, this should really not be so surprising after all. While the motivations of three permanent members of the Security Council, the US, British and French, are obvious, the Russians are particularly worried about well-trained Islamic fundamentalist fighters coming into their territory to fight on behalf of the Chechens or other minority groups. Meanwhile, the Chinese are thoroughly concerned about the possibilities of trained fighters joining up with Uighur separatists in Xinjiang – or even, more remotely still, in support of Tibetan groups.

Still, this ambitious new anti-IS strategy – with its still-as-yet-vague end game and the expectations of holding together a thoroughly disparate coalition that actually has widely varied interests – has real risks for evolving into a drawn-out struggle with an indeterminate end point. And that, in turn, has the lurking danger of generating those inevitable pressures for an expansion of roles and actions, despite presidential promises and the thorough opposition of the US population for such an enlargement of the scope of military action. And even success can produce its own disasters. Consider the question of what could happen if the Islamic State is thoroughly defeated on the battlefield but, then, in turn, it ultimately gives birth to yet other, even more nihilistic groups, or groups who take up urban terror throughout the rest of the world in revenge for IS’ defeat in the field? This is going to be a tough one. DM

Photo: US President Barack Obama (L) talks with Samantha Power, US Ambassador to the United Nations (R) during a high-level UN Security Council meeting about worldwide terrorism during the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 24 September 2014. EPA/JASON SZENES

For more, read:

  • Confronting Islamic State – The next war against global jihadism in The Economist

  • In his UN speech, Obama vows to fight ISIS ‘network of death’ in the New York Times

  • Iran’s president says West’s blunders helped ISIS rise in the New York Times

  • Islamic State crisis: US hits IS oil targets in Syria at the BBC

  • FACT SHEET: UN Security Council Resolution 2178 on foreign terrorist fighters at the US state department website

  • UAE’s first female fighter pilot dropped bombs on the Islamic State at the Washington Post

  • US-led strikes hit IS-held oil sites in Syria at the AP

  • Bashar al-Assad seeks to reap benefits from US-led raids in Syria at the Financial Times


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