When President Obama sits down with congressional leaders this week to talk about fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — “ISIS” — they’ll probably not agree on anything, not even the proper name of the terrorist organization that now controls about one-third of Iraq and a larger part of Syria.
The president insists on calling it “ISIL”, for “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The “Levant” — an archaic term — refers to the area off the Eastern Mediterranean Sea stretching from what is now Anatolia in Turkey, through Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Egypt. By insisting on calling the terrorist micro-caliphate “ISIL,” the president is giving them credit for being a lot bigger than they really are.
One thing that they certainly won’t discuss is the best idea to come out of the House of Representatives in quite a while. Actually, it hasn’t come out yet and it’s a good idea with one major defect.
The idea is a bill to be introduced this week by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) that would revise the Authorizations for Use of Military Force passed by Congress to authorize the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Both of those measures — passed in 2001 and 2002 — do not give congressional consent to what we face now. The original AUMF authorized war against those people and networks that were behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and the 2002 version authorized war in Iraq.
Wolf’s bill would authorize the president to use military force:
… in close consultation, coordination and cooperation with NATO and regional allies, to use all necessary and appropriate force against those countries, organizations and persons associated with or supporting terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and its regional affiliates, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and any other emerging regional terrorist groups that share a common violent extremist ideology… in order to eliminate all such terrorist groups and prevent future acts of international terrorism against the United States or its allies by such terrorist groups, countries, organizations or persons.
The merits of Wolf’s bill are several. It would, in effect, declare war on the broader terrorist networks and the nations that support them. Going back to the original 9/11 attacks, at least some of us have understood that terrorist groups cannot be a significant threat to us without the support of nations. Saudi Arabia is still a major funding source for al-Qaeda and, thus, not an ally but an adversary. Qatar’s funding and providing sanctuary for the Muslim Brotherhood and its appendages, such as Hamas, make it our enemy, as does its covert support of ISIS. Iran is the principal terrorist-sponsoring nation in the world. Other nations that help fund ISIS are equally the enemy. Pseudo-allies, such as France, which help fund it by paying ransom for kidnapped citizens, have to be compelled to stop.
Wolf’s bill clarifies the war we are in — against the ideological aspect of Islam — and makes clear the objective of eliminating the threat. The big problem with Wolf’s bill is that it permits Obama’s multilateralism to prevent action. By setting the condition of consultations, coordination, and cooperation with allies, the bill ensures that nothing can happen unless other nations agree to what will be done and join in doing it. That’s the precise constraint — other than most NATO members’ refusal to invest in their own defense — that prevents NATO from functioning in the purpose for which it was created.
For all its merits, the bill won’t be discussed at Obama’s congressional meeting. And for its one big demerit, it shouldn’t be passed by the House. Boehner won’t allow its passage in any event, because it would discomfit Obama.
Obama’s discomfiture was evident at the NATO summit this past week. While resolving to destroy, degrade, or render ISIS a “manageable” threat — three mutually exclusive goals — Obama couldn’t say what he really wanted to do. The one thing that is clear in all this is that Obama cannot conceive of the legitimacy of America defeating an enemy.
Though nine NATO members are reportedly planning some sort of coalition to tackle ISIS, NATO is unable to do much, if anything, to carry out a strategy that might actually defeat ISIS. Only four NATO members — us, Britain, penurious Greece, and Estonia — spend the two percent of GDP on defense that the NATO treaty requires. That’s why the NATO “force” of about 4,000 troops meant to deter further Putinism toward Ukraine won’t even be stationed together in Eastern Europe. NATO refused to agree that the rest of its members should spend the amount on defense that they are obligated to by treaty.
Obama is sending Secretary of State Kerry and Defense Secretary Hagel to the Middle East this week to round up Arab allies for the fight against ISIS. Kerry has said that having Sunni-majority nations is essential to any anti-ISIS coalition, which is wrong on two counts. Though joining such a coalition would defend the vital national security interests of nations such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, those nations are bound to the same ideology that propels ISIS and emboldens it after each success and neither is going to join its military to ours to fight ISIS for that reason.
The Saudis are much like the members of NATO: they want us to shoulder the burden, take the risks and suffer the losses that are necessary to defeat ISIS. They spent about a year trying to convince Obama and Congress to intervene in Syria and when that failed they decided to go their own way, which will not involve engaging their military in the fight unless ISIS threatens Saudi territory. Turkey, ruled by the radical Islamist Erdogan, is a NATO member that will fight only as the Saudis would, if its territory is threatened. At present, ISIS is too clever to attack either nation.
Kerry and Hagel will come back with many promises from Arab nations and their demands for further consultations, which will take so long that the idea of fighting ISIS will be forgotten. And because Obama is not going to act unilaterally, he will wait indefinitely for diplomacy to give concrete results. Which it almost never does.
On Friday, Obama pledged to “take the fight to ISIS.” He’s going to give a speech on Wednesday to tell us what he plans to do, which is reportedly some increase in airstrikes in support of Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Obama will, as he always does, announce his “plan” in Churchillian tones and then abandon the field. His plans will amount to token efforts that will risk the lives of American pilots and otherwise wait for NATO and the Sunni nations to decide what can and should be done.
House Republicans shouldn’t wait. They should, instead, get Wolf to amend his bill to clearly allow unilateral action if allies don’t join in our plans. If House Republicans did so, they could put the decision squarely on the desks of Obama and Harry Reid and take away Obama’s charge of obstructionism against them. By passing an amended version of Wolf’s bill, they could lead the national defense debate. That would begin the process of divorcing themselves from the Bush neo-Wilsonian strategy of nation building and from John McCain’s neocon rantings. The only certainty is that John Boehner will not let that happen.