A group more radical than al-Qaeda, better organized, better financed, commanding the loyalty of thousands of dedicated fanatics including many with Western and even U.S. passports? And this group now controls some of the most strategic territory at the heart of the Middle East?
Welcome to President Obama’s brave new world. After six years in office pursuing strategies he believed would tame the terror threat and doing his best to reassure the American people that the terror situation was under control, with the “remnants” of al-Qaeda skittering into the shadows like roaches when the exterminator arrives, Obama now confronts the most powerful and hostile jihadi movement of modern times, a movement that dances on the graveyard of his hopes.
The FT has rounded up some expert commentary that tries to describe exactly what kind of organization we’re up against here:
“They’re probably the richest jihadi organisation ever seen,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute, and an expert on extremism. “They get their money from trafficking weapons, kidnappings for ransom, counterfeit currencies, oil refining, smuggling artefacts that are thousands of years old and from taxes that they have for areas they are in – either on businesses, or at checkpoints or on ordinary people,” he adds. [...]
“Most jihadist groups are tightly controlled, secretive and well co-ordinated, but Isis has essentially taken that to another level, with a quite impressive level of bureaucracy, extensive account keeping, and multiple channels of accountability,” says Charles Lister, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Centre.
The state ISIS hopes to construct may not endure; in periods of radical instability like this one in the Middle East, the fortunes of war can change with breathtaking speed. But the capacities it is building, the supplies it is gathering, the networks forming around it, the training it imparts, and the enormous psychological boost its current success, however fleeting, gives to the jihadi cause will remain.
One wishes we had a Republican President right now if only because when a Republican is in the White House, the media and the chattering classes believe they have a solemn moral duty to categorize and analyze the failures of American strategy and policy. Today that is far from the case; few in the mainstream press seem interested in tracing the full and ugly course of the six years of continual failure that dog the footsteps of the hapless Obama team in a region the White House claimed to understand. Nothing important has gone right for the small and tightly knit team that runs American Middle East policy. Most administrations have one failure in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking; this administration has two, both distinctly more ignominious and damaging than average. The opening to the Middle East, once heralded by this administration as transformative, has long vanished; no one even talks about the President’s speeches in Cairo and Istanbul anymore, unless regional cynics are looking for punch lines for bitter jokes. The support for the “transition to democracy” in Egypt ended on as humiliating a note as the “red line” kerfuffle in Syria. The spectacular example of advancing human rights by leading from behind in Libya led to an unmitigated disaster from which not only Libya but much of north and west Africa still suffers today.
Rarely has an administration so trumpeted its superior wisdom and strategic smarts; rarely has any American administration experienced so much ignominious failure, or had its ignorance and miscalculation so brutally exposed. No one, ever, will call this administration’s Middle East policies to date either competent or wise—though the usual press acolytes will continue to do what they can to spread a forgiving haze over the strategic collapse of everything this White House has attempted, as they talk about George W. Bush at every chance they get. (An honorable exception in the NYT today: Peter Baker has a piece examining the Administration’s failure to end American involvement in Iraq, and making the obvious but important point that the Iraq fiasco is a consequence of Administration failures in Syria. There are more dots still to connect.)
Now, from the ruins of the Obama Administration’s Middle East strategy, the most powerful and dangerous group of religious fanatics in modern history has emerged in the heart of the Middle East. The rise of ISIS is a strategic defeat of the first magnitude for the United States and its allies (as well as countries like Russia and even China). It is a perfect storm of bad policy intersecting with troubled times to create the gravest threat to U.S. and world stability since the end of the Cold War.
The mainstream press and the professional chatterboxes of the news shows need to set aside their squeamishness at poring over the details of a major strategic failure by a liberal Democrat. The rise of ISIS/ISIL is a disaster that must be examined and understood. How could the U.S. government have been caught napping by the rise of a new and hostile power in a region of vital concern? What warning signs were missed, what opportunities were lost—and why? What role did the administration’s trademark dithering and hairsplitting over aid to ISIS’s rivals in the Syrian opposition play in the rise of the radicals?
Meanwhile, as the liberal press does its earnest best to ignore the real-time collapse of a foreign policy it once cheered to the rafters, some GOP voices are doing their best to add to the confusion and further muddy the debate. The architects of the war in Iraq are claiming that this disaster somehow vindicates them, and some hope that, as the nature of the danger and the magnitude of the disaster sink in, the nation will call them back to power.
In fact, the architects of the surge and the policies that stabilized Iraq following the nadir of the war do deserve credit; Generals Petraeus and McCrystal, both driven from public service as a consequence of minor indiscretions, tower like giants over the moralistic timeservers who arrogantly and foolishly cast them aside. But if those who led the nation into Iraq want to play a positive role now, they need to embrace some humility and talk about “lessons learned.” If they want to help the United States of America in an hour of real need, they must not try to use the current situation to win personal vindication—and the more stridently they demand it the more they will place obstacles in the path of the debate that we need, marginalize their own voices and divide a people who need to unite as the dangers grow.
Some members of the Democratic foreign policy establishment are looking for ways to rescue their nation and party from the current mess. Les Gelb at the Daily Beast understands the revolutionary nature of the jihadi blitzkrieg, and argues for a new Grand Alliance of the U.S., Russia, Iran and even Assad against the new power in the Middle East. He tries to head off criticisms:
I’m certainly not saying that Assad is a good guy and that we should abandon pursuing his eventual departure, or that we can now trust Russia and Iran. Washington has and will have serious problems with all these countries. And most certainly, the U.S. will have to stay on its guard. But the fact is that there is common ground with Moscow and Tehran to combat the biggest threat to all of us at this moment. Russia frets all the time about the jihadis in the Mideast making joint cause with Muslim extremists in Russia; it’s Moscow’s number one security issue. Iran worries greatly about the Sunni jihadis torturing and killing Shiites in Syria and Iraq. There’s nothing more frightening in the world today than these religious fanatics.
But ultimately, even with Gelb’s many caveats, his proposal may not be practical; a number of these “allies” would be at least as interested in weakening the U.S. as in striking at ISIS—and placing the U.S. on one side of a sectarian war has big drawbacks. There is also the question of whether the earnest White House types who have piled up such a disastrous record in the Middle East could negotiate their way into a used car lot, much less handle a complex negotiation involving Russia, Iran, Assad, and a bunch of other canny operators. Even so, Gelb is right about this: The rise of ISIS, unless checked, presents a challenge big enough to change the international alignment of more than one state. We could be looking at a major geopolitical upheaval here, an earthquake whose aftershocks will be felt across the world.
From current press reports, it appears that Secretary Kerry is off to the Middle East on a mission of splitting the difference. On the one hand, he is kissing up to the Saudis: telling the Saudi backed Egyptian leader Sisi not to worry, that the aid check is in the mail, and insisting that any solution in Iraq must involve a better deal for the Sunnis. On the other hand, he is urging the Shia to make nice—to throw Maliki out and “be more inclusive” with the Sunnis in Iraq. This is the sort of counsel the U.S. always hands out in these situations; we want both sides to “rise above” their “narrow interests” and accept a compromise solution that, coincidentally, gives us what we want.
The Middle East’s leaders have heard exactly this kind of message from many Presidents and Secretaries of State in the past. They are less inspired by our logic than American policymakers think. As the region’s leaders listen to Kerry, they will be asking whether he brought anything but the usual stale platitudes in his baggage. What, specifically, does the U.S. want people to do? And what good things will happen to those who agree to support the U.S. line in this crisis, and what bad things will happen to those who don’t? One hopes the White House has given Kerry big bags full of extra-tasty carrots and intimidating sticks; otherwise, his mission this week will be no more successful than his most recent bout of Middle East peacemaking with the Israelis and Palestinians. The problem is that what Middle Eastern leaders want most from the United States is exactly what President Obama doesn’t want to give them: firm promises of significant and effective military support. The Iraqis want more than a few drone strikes, the Saudis want Iran’s ambitions blocked and the “moderate” Syrian rebels effectively helped; the Iranians want the U.S. to crush ISIS for them.
Secretary Kerry faces a tough week, especially after the Egyptians celebrated his visit by convicting three Al-Jazeera journalists on terrorism charges and giving them long prison terms. For our part, we wish him all the success in the world, and observe that any tangible successes — like the ouster of Maliki — would help to restore the credibility of an administration that desperately needs a win.
For the immediate future, there are two things to watch. First, does ISIS’s momentum carry it forward when it reaches the Shia districts of Iraq? The militias and parade groups currently marching around Baghdad and thumping their chests may not be very effective in the field, and it is not yet clear whether the Iraqi Army will fight any better on Shia home turf than it did in the north and the west. The Sunni crushed the Shia in Iraq for decades and there is no law of nature that says they can’t do it again—if they are willing to be brutal enough.
They probably are.
In any case, the fall of Baghdad and further disintegration of the fragile Shia Army would create one kind of situation; the stabilization of a military front north and west of the city or even inside it would be something quite different. Until we know how that develops on the ground, it will be difficult to think much about the future.
Second, there’s the question of the political balance within the ISIS-held territories. Tribal leaders, Baathist activists, other religious groups and their allies outnumber the true ISIS cadres by an immense factor. It is far from clear whether the rebel region in Syria and Iraq will be under one increasingly powerful and effective government or whether it falls apart into factionalism and internal power struggles. For ISIS to impose real order and authority on the population under its military control, and to build up its forces from a guerrilla army to a force capable of imposing dictatorial religious rule on a large civilian population, would be a victory as difficult and in some ways more astonishing than the triumph of its forces on the ground. The U.S. might do better to try to strengthen the non-ISIS components of the Sunni movements in Syria and Iraq than to look to Tehran and the Kremlin for help.
So the dust will have to settle before we can tell what exactly we are dealing with. But even as we wait for the new picture to emerge internationally, the American people need to come to grips with a strategic escalation of the terror threat at home. ISIS is much richer, much bigger, much better organized and much better positioned to launch attacks in the U.S. and Europe than any of its predecessors. For now, the organization appears to be focused on its local wars, where it certainly has plenty to do. But we’ve consistently underestimated the group’s capabilities, strategic intelligence, innovative planning methods, and drive to prevail. It would be most unwise to assume that a jihadi terror organization 2.0 like ISIS, richer than Osama bin Laden and better supplied with arms and supporters, is incapable of thinking one or two steps ahead. And there’s the reality that hotheads all over the world will be inspired by its success to try a little murder and mayhem on their own.
So here, alas, is where we now stand six years into the Age of Obama: The President isn’t making America safer at home, he doesn’t have the jihadis on the run, he has no idea how to bring prosperity, democracy, or religious moderation to the Middle East, he can’t pivot away from the region, and he doesn’t know what to do next. He’s the only President this country has got, and one can’t help but wish him well, but if things are going to get any better, he needs to stop digging. He probably needs to bring in some new blood, and he must certainly ask himself some tough questions about why so many of his most cherished ideas keep leading him and his country into such ugly places.
Six years into what the President and his supporters thought would be an era of liberal Democrats seizing the national security high ground from enfeebled, discredited Republicans, the outlook is much grimmer than the President’s team could have dreamed. Perhaps they should take comfort from the example of George W. Bush; at this point in his presidency things looked pretty bleak, too. Between the surge in Iraq and hard work building bridges with allies, Bush had some positive foreign policy momentum going by the time he left office. It’s not a place on Mount Rushmore, but it’s better than the alternative. Mr. Obama must now hope he can accomplish as much.