It’s only been five days since President Obama announced his strategy which depends on a coalition of NATO members and Arab states to join with us to degrade and maybe someday destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But, as I predicted on Thursday, that plan won’t succeed. It has already fallen apart.
The Arab nations are, as usual, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” in the war against ISIS. Their resentment and distrust of Obama ensured that the most they’d do is permit us to use bases in their nations. Predictably, they won’t send one soldier to fight with us. Britain, Germany, and Canada have already told us that they’ll sit this one out. Turkey, once a cornerstone of NATO and now ruled by a radical Islamist, has not only refused to join us but has also indicated it will refuse us the use of what used to be our massive airbase at Incirlik.
Although one reported cease-fire between a “moderate” Syrian rebel group and ISIS seems to have been short-lived, Obama’s plan to arm the Syrian “moderates” is probably moot.
There seems to be a competition for the title of Obama’s shakiest ally. It’s not Congress, as one Washington Post columnist wrote on Saturday. The winners are the members of his own administration who should, by now, be famous for their imitation of Abbott and Costello’s immortal “Who’s on first?” routine.
So who’s on first? After Obama’s Wednesday night speech announced a war, first at bat to pull back from it was Secretary of State John Kerry. On Thursday, Kerry said, “I think war is the wrong terminology and analogy but the fact is that we are engaged in a very significant global effort to curb terrorist activity.”
What was on second? The White House and the Pentagon performances, stumbling over each other, to refute what Kerry said. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said (joshing earnestly?) we are at war with ISIS the same way that we’re at war with al-Qaeda. Pentagon spokesman RAdm. John Kirby made sure to point out that this isn’t the same Iraq war of a decade ago, but it’s a war nonetheless. Heaven forbid that someone might think this is connected in any way to the old nasty Bush war in Iraq.
We didn’t know who’d be on third until National Security Advisor Susan Rice — reprising her role in blaming the Benghazi attacks on an obscure anti-Muslim video — told CNN that it’s not really a war. She said, “We’ll not have American combat forces on the ground fighting as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is what I think the American people think of when they think of a war, so I think this is very different from that.”
Never mind the SEALs, Delta guys, and other special operators killing terrorists in raids and all the pilots who are risking their lives to deliver their bomb loads and cannon fire against ISIS forces. To Obama’s national security team, what they do doesn’t constitute a war.
Many conservatives have made much of George Bush’s warnings that if we left Iraq too soon, all would fall apart. But Mr. Bush was more wrong than he was right. In August 2006, Bush said: “If we leave Iraq before the job is done, it will create a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, a terrorist state much more dangerous than Afghanistan was before we removed the Taliban, a terrorist state with the capacity to fund its activities because of the oil reserves of Iraq.”
The problem was in what he defined as “the job.” In those same remarks, Bush said: “The stakes are high. It’s very important for the American people to understand that the security of the United States of America, the capacity of our children to grow up in a peaceful world, in large part depends on our willingness to help this young Iraq democracy succeed. And we will succeed.”
Bush defined success as democratization of Iraq in which we were barred — by the ideology of Islam and by history — from succeeding. Defining success in those terms was entirely wrong as I have written on this page many times for eight years. But it is wrong for Bush to take all the blame. We made the worst mistake since 9-11-01 in choosing nation-building as a strategy. But whether or not we invaded Iraq, most of what is happening now would be happening nonetheless.
That’s because the wars between the Sunni and Shia were inevitable, propelled by wealth, by religious ideology, by their growing military capacities, and by their determination to sponsor terrorism aimed at the West. The forces propelling these conflicts are at their strongest since the end of World War I, when the Ottoman Empire fell.
The forces of Islamic radicalism — fostered by Iran’s Shia, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabis, and autocratic Islamists such as Turkey’s Erdogan — are a tide of history that cannot be dealt with within the four corners of Iraq or even Syria. Many “experts” are now talking about a “regional” solution for the Middle East that is also impossible for Western powers to impose because it is a religious conflict, or actually several of them.
The Sunni, the Shia, and their various emanations are continuously at war with each other. We are drawn into these proxy wars and wars with proto-states such as ISIS because the West presents all of them with a common target. It is less dangerous for any of those groups to attack us than it is for them to attack each other. But since 9/11 it’s become harder to attack us. So now, as in the advent of ISIS, they are finding it almost as convenient to attack each other.
Our strategy, which will have to encompass military interventions such as the one we need to make against ISIS, has to be to turn those religious conflicts inwards. As long as our national security — and that of key allies — is protected, it almost doesn’t matter to us which Muslim forces win particular conflicts, except for one thing. The Saudis, terrified of Iranian nuclear weapons — and of an Iranian-inspired insurrection by the Shiite majority in their eastern provinces — may have already arranged for their own nuclear arsenal to be supplied by Pakistan. Given Obama’s policy decisions, it may not be possible to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East or even a nuclear war there. But we can impose ad hoc, short-term peaces by degrading proto-states such as ISIS by military force. That would protect us in the short and longer runs by punishing terrorism aimed at us, which will help refocus the religious wars on the real belligerents. We can, and must, play one against the other for the foreseeable future.
The preeminent danger to the United States remains Iran. Preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power has to be our constant focus in dealing with every other nation from Saudi Arabia to Russia and China.
Obama’s choice of diplomacy to undo Iran’s nuclear weapons program is failing, and gives the Iranians time to achieve their ambitions on their own terms. It fails, as his ISIS “strategy” has failed, because it does not create conditions in which nations such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Kuwait are required to engage directly in opposing Iran. ISIS could be a temporary problem if it were dealt with — as it should be — by decisive application of military power. Obama’s strategy will not do that largely because he has made it too easy for our allies to not involve their own ground forces. Unless they do, ISIS can be damaged but not destroyed.
Iran is a much bigger problem. It will be up to our next president to stop it if he can. By the time a new president is inaugurated, it may not be.