President Obama just can’t catch a break, it seems. He has been acutely reluctant to get the United States directly involved militarily in Syria over the past three years, and at least some of the reasons for his reluctance have been well founded. Nonetheless, he has been criticized for his passivity, ducking the prudent use of American power far short of direct military engagement, and accused of allowing the problem to worsen, the latest evidence for that judgment being the sudden and frightening emergence in June of ISIS (or ISIL or the Islamic State or, in Arabic acronym Da’ash—take your pick). Now, as the nation heard last night from the Oval Office, he has decided to use U.S. airpower in Syria as well as in Iraq in the context of a complex and protracted coalition effort to extirpate the threat, and he is being criticized again: for supposedly perching the country atop a slippery slope; both for saying he doesn’t need Congressional authority and for seeking Congressional buy-in anyway; for having dismissed the moderate Sunni opposition in Syria only to turn around and embrace it as an irreplaceable instrument in his new strategy; for having blurted out last week that we didn’t have a strategy for dealing with ISIS even as we were already bombing it in Iraq; and for a host of other supposed sins. Well, this is what being President gets you, and in a partisan ether, for which he is as responsible as anyone, this is what it smells like.
How to sort all this out? Let me start with the speech itself, then move to strategic analysis.
It was a pretty good speech. It was clear, brief, and it had the rousing patriotic and optimistic finish such speeches need, with not one but two invocations of the Deity. It also branched orthogonally in a delicate but unmistakable way to punch the Ukraine and other emotional buttons. The President neither stumbled nor lost his place, he made camera-eye contact, and looked more or less confident. All that makes for a good presentation, and, as a recovering speechwriter, I am sensitive to such framing issues.
I would also grant that what the President laid out adds, sort of, to a strategy, at least insofar as a real strategy can be articulated in that sort of limited venue. For example, the President made clear that the Assad regime was still on the enemy list, and hence that we would not be coordinating with it or in any way helping it—at least not deliberately. One could interpolate from this that we have Assad regime targets in mind, which would be a proper part of a complex strategy befitting a complex situation; but it remains to be seen whether the Administration, or the President, has yet bitten into that particular apple. As to the existence of a strategy or not, David Brooks said it best in answer to a question from Gwen Ifill on the NPR aftertalk show: If you’ve got four points, it’s a strategy; if you’ve got only three it’s just a list. (David was being both glib and telegraphic, and quite likely a significant percentage of the audience missed both the humor and the implied deprecation; but I enjoyed it immensely.)
So were there no screw-ups in the speech? Looking just at small stuff (we’ll get to the bigger problems in a moment) there were only two.
The President said that his policy eliminated Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. This is both demonstrably and non-demonstrably false. The demonstrable part is that the Syrian regime has continued killing people with chlorine gas, which was not part of the list but which is still deadly. The non-demonstrable part, yet, is that the Syrians never declared their entire stock of chemical weapons, a point I have been at pains to make in this space several times. Even Secretary of State John Kerry has mused publicly about this possibility. So this remark was misleading if not outright wrong.
The second minor screw-up was the tossed off remark that ISIS (ISIL, IS, Daash) was not Islamist. And this screw-up was a double screw up. First, he should have said that ISIL is not Islamic, not Islamist, since, as he put it, no religion condones the killing of innocents. The former adjective is a just a modifier of the noun Islam, but the latter one denotes a political ideology that uses Islam as a legitimating device—that is the universal usage of the words as they have become integrated into our vocabulary over the past three or so decades. In that sense, ISIS, like al-Qaeda from which it originally sprang, is about as Islamist as it can be.
But supposing the speechwriters had not been derelict or lazy on this point, is ISIS also not Islamic? Well, in some oxygen-deprived airy abstract zone of theology, the President is right: Islam, and Islamic law strictly understood, does not condone the killing of innocents in war. This goes all the way back to Caliph Abu Bakr’s rules of warfare, and we are talking 7th century here. And of course we all know why the President said this: It was a preemptive strike against the bogeyman of Islamophobia. For the same reason George W. Bush once called Islam a religion of peace.
Ah, but is it true? The answer is, in theory yes but in practice no. No armed religious movement is peaceful by nature. Looking at the actual history of the matter, there are lots of examples of jihadis killing innocents in droves, very much including other Muslims. From the Almohads in Spain to the Hausa-Fulani in Africa, examples abound. Of course Christians have butchered innocents too, as any depiction of the 1099 Crusader massacres in Jerusalem will attest. Does that make Christianity not a religion of peace? Not necessarily: What it shows is that statements of such platitudinous generality are meaningless except as speechwriter offerings on the altar of political correctness.
Beyond the text and its delivery stands a question that, surprisingly to me, I have so far heard no one ask: Why give an Oval Office speech at all? Plenty of portentous Executive decisions get made without primetime speeches being given about them. Why now, on this issue?
The short answer: the upcoming midterm elections, which the President identified many months ago, however disappointingly and improbably, to be the core of his legacy as President. The “we don’t have a strategy” gaffe hurt him, and it hurt the Democrats at least a little by extension. More important, thanks to the media hype about the two beheaded American journalists, public opinion has clearly and rapidly hardened in the context of a raft of official statements about how horrible and barbaric and dangerous ISIS is. So the speech was just plain good politics. It allowed the President as leader of the Democratic Party to rally around the flag, which is always good for votes, especially so at a time when the President’s foreign policy ratings are way down in the crapper. In the few months leading up to the elections, the White House can readily modulate the use of U.S. military power so that no bad headlines appear about U.S. planes being shot down and American pilots being captured or killed.
It was, certainly, telegenically horrifying to more or less witness the beheadings of two American journalists. And the impact of such events on public opinion is nothing new; similar spectacles, like the sinking of certain American ships (the Maine, the Lusitania, the Reuben James), have also turned American public opinion to blood red in the past. Yet there is something about the personalization of the news these days, especially in the electronic media, that, as part of the noxious wave of celebrity culture washing over us, strengthens the effect at the expense of any effort to understand the larger context. When media companies compete for market share, they know that simplicity trumps nuance, that personalization trumps abstraction, and that pictures trump text. The cumulative result of decontextualizing facts and trivializing meaning is to imbecilize the body politic. That is, in part anyway, how wild swings in public opinion can happen so readily.
But however it happened, the political utility of grabbing on to the sudden shift of the zeitgeist was not lost on a White House that, with the possible exception of its Clintonian predecessor, is the most partisan-politically avaricious in my lifetime. That’s why the speech.
One final point, if I may, about the “words” part of the words-and-deeds amalgam that composes any foreign policy action. The U.S. government, again, has been imitating Hamlet. In an agonizingly slow process, we have been talking our way to the use of airpower against ISIS in Syria and, again and more so, in Iraq.
What do you suppose ISIS has been doing all this time as a consequence? Very predictably, it has been preparing as best it can to absorb these strikes and still come out fighting. How can it do this? Well, by getting its weapons, mostly of U.S. manufacture either bought or seized from Iraqi soldiers, out of the open desert air. It can do this by imitating Hamas, co-locating important assets near schools, hospitals, markets and so on, and by hardening bunkers for its leadership to dodge drones that would decapitate them. We have no reason to believe they would not do these things; they are not stupid just because they are religious fanatics. The terrain offers little opportunity for quick cover in that part of the world, except in the northern zones near Kurdistan where mountains are useful for hiding things. So the very threat of U.S. strikes might be slowing the operational tempo of ISIS, but by telegraphing what we are about to do, and even how we are about to do it, we have forfeited the utility of surprise and uncertainty. As our men and women in uniform understand very well, this is unfortunate.
Even granting that there is a strategy, from what we can know about it from a curt Oval Office speech, it is flawed on at least three counts. First, the threat does not justify the means identified to address it, and those means are as likely to exacerbate the threat as to reduce it. Second, unless we get incredibly lucky, the means identified are insufficient to accomplish the stated objective, which is for all intents and purposes to destroy ISIS. Third, the objective presupposes and depends upon a contextual endpoint for a successful strategy that will not exist. Let’s unpack these assertions in turn.
The public analysis of the ISIS threat has been, as Daniel Benjamin is quoted as saying in today’s New York Times, a farce. He is exactly right. In the article, entitled “Struggling to Gauge Threat, Even as U.S. Prepares to Act”, you will find little snippets of the intelligence community’s private assessment of the threat. The sharp bias of that assessment is that ISIS lacks the ability to strike the United States and evinces little to no interest in so doing; no evidence exists that, like al-Qaeda, it has a “far enemy” as opposed to a “near enemy” focus. Its order of battle is small (less than 10,000 probably) and unstable, being a conglomeration of locals and foreigners and, more important, of fanatics and tribesmen along on the make for reasons of their own. The main danger posed by ISIS is to people stuck inside the ISIS domain, to Arab and Kurdish neighbors within reach, and to U.S. citizens, personnel, and facilities also within local reach.
The danger down the road, according to the common wisdom, is that returning jihadis could wreak terror back home, or ISIS successes could stimulate supportive copycat terrorism from likeminded fanatics in the United States and other countries. This is possible and certainly worth guarding against. But it is hard to see how airstrikes and drone attacks designed to decapitate the ISIS leadership can deter such behaviors. They are far more likely to elicit them.
Indeed, when the ISIS leadership told James Foley and Stephen Sotloff that they were being executed in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes, there was and is no reason to doubt it. We Americans, in the main, appear to have no end of trouble understanding how tribal societies work and think. They work in the absence of effective central and impersonal Weberian authority through means of balanced opposition in which all people are embedded in concentric nestings of family relationships, and in which there is collective responsibility and collective guilt for all things. If we kill them, the relatives of the dead are obligated to seek revenge in any way they can. It’s within the bounds of the tribal system to take revenge on relatives of the actual perpetrators of crimes; that’s how collective responsibility and collective guilt work. ISIS types simply assumed that Foley and Sotloff were members of the American tribes responsible for attacking them, so they were fair game for taking revenge. The possibility that other societies are not tribally organized is simply impossible for most of them to comprehend.
I am not trying to make excuses for the barbarities of ISIS and similarly fanatical groups. Islamists are not and never will be our friends. They are natural enemies at least theoretically. But contrary to what the President said last night, and to what virtually everyone seems to be assuming, ISIS is not a simple, standard, out-of-central-casting terrorist group. The President also emphasized that ISIS was not a state, noting that no other state recognized it as such. Sorry to be such a contrarian, but this is wrong.
Terrorism, as the standard definition has it, is the use by non-state actors of deadly force against random civilians to sow terror, so as to induce the target of the attack to react in ways harmful to its own interests and principles. That is why, as I have said many times before, the attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor was not an act of terrorism. It was an act of unconventional warfare. Attacks against uniformed soldiers on foreign soil (or territorial waters) cannot be, by definition, an act of terrorism. Same goes for the October 1983 attack on the Marine barracks in Lebanon. These were heinous acts, to be sure; but examples of terrorism they were not. When we conflate terrorism with anything we don’t like that happens to us, we in effect give license to our enemies to mangle the definition of terrorism in ways that suit them. This is not good.
Now let’s consider ISIS in light of this definition. What we have here is a kind of in-between case. ISIS is not—not yet, anyway—a regular army that invariably wears uniforms and insignia and responds to chain-of-command orders. When it places bombs in markets or shoots up a Shi’a mosque, it behaves as a terrorist organization would. But it is a lot closer to a conventional army now than al-Qaeda ever was, and the reason is that within its ranks are lot of trained soldiers from the old Iraqi and Syrian militaries.
And what are these forces doing? They are mainly trying to seize and hold fairly vast, state-scale swaths of territory, something terrorists never do. As I have written before, ISIS represents a classic pre-modern state-building effort, and it resembles in that effort a revitalization movement famously described by the anthropologist Anthony Wallace in the 1950s. The fact that no other state recognizes it as a state is irrelevant. ISIS wants to become a state, but a pre-modern one in which post-Westphalian niceties such a secular spaces for religious toleration and Western laws of war simply do not apply. So U.S. policy, and the President’s statements last night, are both misframing and exaggerating the threat.
Does that mean we should not attack ISIS in Syria and do so again, more muscularly, in Iraq? No. ISIS has become more capable since its emergence into Mosul a few months ago, and we have allies at risk and direct interests in their well being, since the moderate Sunni Arab states are our natural allies in dealing with both ISIS et al. (Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar as-Shams, etc.) and the real threat emanating from Iran and its proxies. It does mean, however, that we must see with eyes wide open what we’re getting into: We will likely create future cycles of revenge lasting perhaps for decades and even longer, since we now live in a world where, to paraphrase an old telephone company advertising slogan, it’s so easy to reach out and slap someone. Moreover, we will not protect ourselves from blowback by bombing ISIS in the Levant; we’ll need to use other modalities for that purpose. But we would do that in any case, one hopes, U.S. air attacks or no attacks.
Now, to means and ends. The President said we want to destroy ISIS, but without putting U.S. boots on the ground. Can we do that by relying on Saudi training and Iraqi military force and a properly armed and supported Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish peshmerga and Jordanian intelligence expertise and Turkish support? Maybe, but I doubt it.
Turkish support does not seem to be forthcoming, judging from Secretary Hagel’s futile recent trip to Ankara—this despite the fact that the Turks foolishly abetted ISIS’s rise and now regret it. The FSA might become a coherent and capable force, but that is not a sure bet either, given the capacious propensities of Syria’s Sunni merchant families to backbite one another. Could Saudi or Jordanian troops turn the trick? The Saudi military (as opposed to the National Guard) is almost completely useless, having never fought a serious battle before; the Jordanians are good, but too small to make a decisive difference. An Egyptian expeditionary force? Such a force might turn up soon in Libya; it’s hard to imagine lots of Egyptian soldiers cavorting around in the Syrian desert, although under Mohammed Ali they made it that far in the 19th century.
Above all, the idea that Shi’a and Sunnis will fight side by side in Iraq against ISIS, now that there is a more inclusive Shi’a-led government in Baghdad, lies somewhere between the highly suspect and the downright risible. Neither Shi’a nor Sunnis have a strong sense of affinity with the Iraqi state, or what’s left of it, of which more in a moment. Why should Sunnis in al-Anbar province again risk life and limb for another Shi’a prime minister in Baghdad while Iran arms and sends Shi’a militias—Hizballah is a case in point—to kill Sunnis in Syria that, just by the way, are more often than not from the same tribal confederacies that straddle the once-upon-a-time Syria-Iraq border? They won’t, unless of course someone bribes them big-time to do so. But as soon as the money stops, they’ll stop fighting.
And here we come to the biggest flaw in the strategy: ISIS did not just fall from the sky one day. As I have explained before in this space, Iranian hegemonic exertions, via support for the murderous Assad regime in Damascus, via Hizballah, and via Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi in Iraq and its latter-day incarnations (Asaib Ahl al-Haq, notably), and other machinations as well, to include the political subversion of Lebanon, have raised an existential threat to the Sunni Arab regimes and have radicalized heretofore mostly latent sectarian cleavages in the region. When the feeble Sunni Arab states proved feckless in responding, the radicalization process, with mischievous help from countries like Qatar as well as Turkey, created the monster that is ISIS. The point? It is not possible to extirpate ISIS unless we also address its source: Iranian power projection through Arab Shi’a militias (which, by the way, extends all the way to the Houtis in Yemen).
That is why, if the United States attacks ISIS in Syria, it must also attack Assad regime assets and, for good measure, those of Hizballah as well. A good start, as others have recommended, is to crater the airfields where weapons transports arrive from Iran and Russia. Otherwise, the moderate Sunnis we hope to enlist as allies against ISIS will conclude that we have secretly sided with Tehran. And a nuclear deal that can be interpreted as a win for Iran will mightily reinforce that perception.
In a sense, then, the President announced only half a strategy last night. A half strategy is useful in the same way that half a brick is useful: It can be thrown about twice as far for purposes of partisan politics and propaganda, but otherwise it will not get the job done. If you will the end—the extirpation of ISIS—you must will the means; the President did not do that last night, and the preemptive exclusion of the use of American ground forces will not work to instill confidence in would-be partners or persuade them to extend their own assets in this fight. But of course the reason for saying that was, again, partisan politics through and through.
Now, finally, there is an implicit but powerful assumption here that once U.S. strategy succeeds—and that means, according to the President’s words, that ISIS is destroyed, Syria transitions to its post-Assad era, and Iraq has an inclusive, democratically functioning government—there will be a Syria and an Iraq in territorial configurations we all know from roughly the past century. Anyone with even half a brain who has been paying attention to this part of the world knows this is not going to happen. In the Westphalia-addled, history-truncated American mind, the state system is the only system there is or can be. The shapes on the map are sacrosanct, believed to possess an ontological reality no less firm than the material world itself.
I’m sure that U.S. policymakers in the mid-levels of this dilemma know better. They realize that there is no more Iraq as a state or Syria as a state. They know that something else will come to replace them, but the idea is so perplexing, so scary, and so inchoate, that it would be heresy to give voice to such a notion in polite interagency company. Like the mad uncle locked in the attic, everyone sort of knows he’s up there, but no one dares mention it.
The future of the Levant, or at least the parts that used to make up Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, is up for grabs. So is the land on which Kurds live in four countries. That future depends on a series of interlocking contingent decisions not yet made, so no one can readily predict it. But generically speaking, there are only three possibilities.
One is that borders will be rearranged and newly configured states and statelets will emerge. Syria could be divided into a rump Latakian-Alawi state running along the Mediterranean from the Turkish border south to the Lebanese border, and encompassing the great Damascus area, and a Sunni state stretching from Aleppo eastward into the desert and south to Dera’a. Iraq could be split into a Shi’a state in the south, a Kurdish state in the north/northeast, and a Sunni tribal area in between—like the current status quo somehow formalized. Lebanon might or might not be absorbed in part into a Syrian fragment.
A second generic possibility is that the area will be divided, with some Shi’a and Kurdish and Alawi statelets and rumps congealing but with the vast swaths of the Sunni tribal areas being absorbed into Saudi Arabia and Jordan. There is a possibility, too, that the Shi’a areas of Iraq might be absorbed into Iran, but this is unlikely because Persian and Arab blood is thicker than Shi’a water.
A third possibility is that urban areas will have something like normal government, but that vast stretches of the region will return to their tribal status quo ante, reminiscent of the 14th-16th century period between the rescission of the Mongol armies and the arrival of the Ottomans.
The chance that a single imperium could cover and control the entire space, as in the days of Assyria, Babylon, and the Persian Achaemenids or Sassanids, seems very far-fetched. Too bad, in a way, because the national security challenges for the United States of this fourth possibility would probably be a lot less acute than those of any of the other three.
But that is where the region is heading, to one of those three highly uncertain situations. If we had a strategy really worth the name, that is what we would be thinking about now—because the destruction of ISIS and the fate of Bashir al-Assad pale beside the real decision points to come. And they’ll be coming faster than most people seem to realize.