Martin Dempsey’s statement yesterday before a congressional committee that U.S. ground forces might be used in the campaign against ISIS means one of two things: either the General let a skunk loose in the barn, or he’s a deputized trial balloonist, floating a dragon kite for a President who is too politically astute to do that sort of thing himself (especially within hailing distance of the midterms).
If this were an adult Administration in terms of process and craft, I’d credit the possibility of the latter—and it may indeed prove to be the case. But I doubt it. I think General Dempsey just spoke his mind, as he is wont to do, and he implicated directions from the President himself as his permission slip: Bring me cases, one by one, said POTUS to the JCS Chairman (according to the JCS Chairman), and I may change my mind about the use of U.S. ground forces. So, recognizing both the principle of civilian control over the military—yes, yes, he said, he understands the President’s red line over the use of ground troops—and teasing out his maneuvering room as far as possible (it’s just another Obama red line, after all), he set the skunk loose.
But why? Is General Dempsey chomping at the bit to go kill Arabs? Not at all. He is simply worried, as a competent military professional ought to be, that the anti-ISIS coalition-building effort the President announced in a primetime Oval Office speech on September 10 is not going so well. Actually, it’s going so very not well.
Let’s count the ways and update the misanthropic realities of the week that has passed since I last wrote on this matter.
As I indicated, we need Sunni-state boots on the ground to accompany American air power, and we are failing mightily to get them. Secretary Hagel’s futile trip to Ankara has since been followed by Secretary Kerry’s futile trip to Ankara, and this is critical: Only three armies in the region have a combination of sufficient size and competence to stop ISIS. Two can be ruled out a priori: Israel and Egypt. (The Egyptians under President al-Sisi, as I said last time, may intervene in Libya, but they are not going to go out of their way to help us in the Levant, especially on behalf of an American administration they neither respect nor trust.) That leaves Turkey, and the Turks want no part of this. We cannot even get them to promise to better patrol their own border, which they are using as a release valve to launch their own young religious fanatics on a path to paradise…once their guts are spilled out all over the Syrian desert.
If we have no Sunni state allies willing to do the military scut work, and if we are not willing to attack Assad regime and Hizballah targets in Syria to show that we are not acting as a regional Shi‘a air force, then we have not acquired the means to accomplish the end: the extirpation of ISIS.
It gets worse. The Saudis are also not willing to put boots on the ground, only to train some FSA-related types on their soil. This is just as well, since the Saudi military is useless (again, this doesn’t apply to the National Guard, and it remains true despite the inane blustering from Saudi media lately about how well prepared and stalwart the Saudi military is). But the Saudis apparently are not willing to train very many: News reports put the number that we are willing to fund and that they are willing to train at 5,000. Now, a few months ago the ISIS order of battle stood at an estimated 10,000; more recent estimates (25,000-35,000) show us what a string of victories and a lot of money can get you. This is what a bias for the “strong horse” in a rent-a-crowd part of the world can do. How are 5,000 FSA trainees, even with a lot of help, going to master five or six or seven times that many crazed and increasingly experienced enemy troops.
While we’re talking about the Ahl Saud (that is not a typo, and if you don’t know the different between “al-“ and “Ahl” at the beginning of a transliterated Arabic noun, it simply means you have never studied the language, which of course is fine and normal), two other notes are worth the jotting.
First, the Saudis never wanted this training mission, because it is impossible to know who a Sunni “moderate” really is as an actual living individual person, and the last thing the Saudis want is a bunch of foreigners with military training and no special affinity to the Saudi state moiling around inside the Kingdom. They wanted and expected the Jordanians to do this, but the Jordanians, for exactly the same reasons, demurred. So what did the Saudis do? They cut their aid subsidy to Jordan—all of it reportedly, to the tune of about $1 billion.
Second, Riyadh is apparently having some success at kicking the knees out from under those upstart troublemakers in Doha. Since the Gulf Cooperation Council’s pulling of their Ambassadors in March and the Saudi reading of the riot act to Emir Tammim just a few weeks ago, the Qataris have expelled the members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood directorate who had taken up residence there next to Sheikh Qaradawi and Khalid Meshal. The Qataris have assembled a kind of theme park of Islamist freaks and fire-breathers in recent years and have used Al Jazeera as their publicist. The Saudis have found this theme park increasingly unentertaining. Hamas announced that Meshal was not expelled from Qatar along with the Egyptian MB crowd, but that fact remains to be seen. In any event, don’t worry about where the MB weary will rest their heads; my guess is that the Turkish government, our erstwhile NATO ally, will welcome them generously.
There is a point to be taken here: The Saudis are engaging in far more vigorous forms of elbow-throwing diplomacy than they have demonstrated in many years, and that is a direct consequence of two developments: their extreme nervousness over the rampant polarization and militarization of the sectarian enmity within Dar al-Islam, and their complete lack of trust in American policy. The Saudis are not about to stick out their necks against ISIS if the net result is to help Iran and its nefarious allies and militias, and the U.S. unwillingness to go “all in” with ground forces and to disavow its wooing of Tehran (which they probably have exaggerated in Riyadh) are largely behind that judgment.
Moreover, the culture of Saudi high politics is, like the rest of the culture, highly personal. They take the measure of other men, and when King Abdallah and his closest aides take the measure of Barack Obama, they see a cold-fish community organizer from Chicago, a lawyer who would be judge, and a man who seeks multi-sum consensus and would direct the actions of others—not a man who would drive decisions and act forthrightly at the head of the crowd. They see, too, a man whose red lines have repeatedly dissolved into sour pink lemonade. In other words, they see the man for what he is, and what he is is not a leader of a military coalition where everyone else in the slime pit is playing by zero-sum Hama rules.
The President has fallen into the habit lately of saying things he really ought to keep to himself. In Saturday’s New York Times, Peter Baker captured the real Barack Obama, and it’s worth quoting at some length how his “haunting” feature began:
Just hours before announcing an escalated campaign against Islamic extremists last week, President Obama privately reflected on another time when a president weighed military action in the Middle East—the frenzied weeks leading up to the American invasion of Iraq a decade ago.
“I was not here in the run-up to Iraq in 2003,” he told a group of visitors who met with him in the White House before his televised speech to the nation, according to several people who were in the meeting. “It would have been fascinating to see the momentum and how it builds.”
In his own way, Mr. Obama said, he had seen something similar, a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who had swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists. He had told his staff, he said, not to evaluate their own policy based on external momentum. He would not rush to war. He would be deliberate.
“But I’m aware I pay a political price for that,” he said.
This is an extraordinary remark. The President sees decision-making on the use of force as principally a political matter, and of course the midterms are all but upon us. He is basically saying that he gave the September 10 speech because a rising war fever made it necessary, and that he has had to pay a political price for not lurching faster and further toward war. He mentions the strategic stakes involved not second or third, but not at all. Given the Saudis’ settled perspective on the President, one can only imagine what they took away from their reading of these remarks.
Of course, the Saudis in large part deserve their fears. In recent weeks the regime and its press have been trumpeting a global campaign to defeat terrorism. The hypocrisy of it all is breathtaking. Did the Saudis not pay al-Qaeda for years to take their mad show on the road and not attack targets in the Kingdom? They did. Did their schools not encourage young Saudis to go a’jihading to Bosnia and Chechnya and elsewhere? They did. Did the princes not finance the Wahhabi madrassas in Peshawar that sired the Taliban? They did that too, and much, much more. Now that the fires they set are burning out of control closer to home, the regime is suddenly seized with anti-terrorist rhetoric, and would hire others to transform the rhetoric into action. It looks smarmy because it is; as Elena Bonner once said, “Fear gives bad advice.”
So who is General Dempsey et al. left with as a ground-going coalition partner? Well, aside maybe from 5,000 FSA trainees, he’s got some Kurdish pesh merga and the Iraqi Army, such as it is. No wonder he’s thinking about the need to use U.S. ground forces.
The Obama Administration certainly cannot count on the Iraqi military for any significant help. As I explained last time, the Sunni tribes in Iraq are largely related to the folks across the once-upon-a-time Iraqi-Syrian border, and they are not about to go kill other Sunnis while Iran is helping a Shi‘a regime in Baghdad and sending Shi‘a Arab militias to murder Sunnis in mosques and markets. Last time I mentioned Asaib Ahl al-Haq in this regard—and today, a week later, the front page of the New York Times has gotten around to mentioning them, but without telling readers that Asaib Ahl al-Haq is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian al-Quds force. (The photo caption on page 1 claims that Asaib Ahl al-Haq is patrolling near Tikrit with Kurdish pesh merga. If this is true—if the Kurds are active that far from Kurdistan and if they are willing to cooperate with nut-job Shi‘a fanatics in the pay of Iran—then the situation is even more convoluted than I realized.)
I would be remiss not to mention the U.S. diplomatic thrust in the coalition-building process. Just a few days ago delegates from 24 countries came to Paris to engage in some feisty coalition-building (muffled laughter is appropriate at this point). Of course this is just policy theater. The real business here is military to military following leadership to leadership. But if the real business is not going so well, the theater has been even worse: Cancel the show, take down the posters, and fire the actors. Among the invitees to Paris were the Russians. This is like inviting the arsonist, in the person of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov disguised as a dancing bear, into the firehouse.
As to the Russian mission, which is carrying Bashir al-Assad’s murderous portfolio into pinstriped company, Lavrov was forced to warn Secretary Kerry that unilateral U.S. military action in Syria, or any action that is not coordinated with the sovereign Syrian government, would be a totally unacceptable violation of international law. This is from a man whose government is fomenting a war in Ukraine and on whose behalf Lavrov is lying so widely and so often that his nose should have grown all the way to Paris and arrived before the rest of his body.
A lot of people would be uncomfortable in this role, but Lavrov appears to enjoy it, especially the part where he looks the clueless Kerry in the eye and says the most outlandish things he can think of. Kerry just swallows and blinks; what else can he do?
So what will happen next? I am more confident of what will not happen: The White House will not go kinetic in anything like a big way until after the midterms. The President will certainly not let General Dempsey use Special Forces or any other forces on the ground in Syria until after the results are in.
Meanwhile, as I suggested would be the case a week ago, the ISIS leadership is trying to make itself targetless. A report just the other day indicated that ISIS troops have melted away into the civilian population that is left in Raqqa, lugging their equipment to population centers to make sure, Hamas-like, that if attacked from the air there will be plenty of civilian casualties to stir useful outrage.
Every day that passes also helps ISIS get its hands on MANPADs and other devices capable of shooting down airplanes and helicopters. Some reports claim that ISIS is making money by selling oil on the black market; with that kind of money, a group could buy pretty much anything available—and a lot is available.
The more time that passes between what amounted to a U.S. declaration of bitter enmity (only Congress can declare war, supposedly) and nothing happening as a consequence, the more people in the region and beyond will conclude that this is just another of Obama’s dissolving red lines—just talk, just politics, just words pretending they are actions.
If it turns out that we have no allies who can and will effectively take the fight to ISIS on the ground, the President will be faced with a very difficult decision around Thanksgiving time: Go it alone without effective allies and watch as unattended air power fails to make a decisive difference, and thereby raises rather than lowers the prospect of attacks at home; commit U.S. ground troops to achieve the declared end, without knowing in advance how many troops, deployed for how long, the mission would take, or what the inevitable unintended consequences would be of inserting American forces again into the heart of the Arab world; or demur altogether. What will he do?
I don’t know, of course, because at this point neither does he. Total demurral would be costly in terms of reputation, and if it coincides with what the world interprets as final U.S. defeat in Afghanistan (alas, not so unlikely), the optic would be horrible. Among the Arabs nothing succeeds like success; if we back down, the enemy will have a field day at the expense of those we still call our allies. Not good.
Doubling down and sending first U.S. Special Forces and ultimately, one has to fear, the “big army” into northern Iraq and Syria would be, in my view, the biggest mistake we will have made since the Marines hit the beach in March 1965 at Vung Ro Bay. What a Christmas present that would be, and what an irony if the most force-reluctant President since before the Spanish-American War were responsible for a disastrous war that would long outlast his departure from office.
What’s left—air power without embellishment—is almost certainly not going to work, and its potential downside goes beyond the possibility of inviting terror attacks to our shores. It would also feed Arab grievance culture in a most unhelpful way and redirect the ambient hatreds festering in the region away from local antagonists and toward us. But as lousy an option as it will seem, it will still probably look better than the alternatives.
It is all well and good to point out that the President is largely to blame for his paucity of decent options—and it happens also to be true. It is true that, had he acted with a judicious use of U.S. power in the early stages in the Syrian civil war, he very well might have avoided the mess that he, and the nation with him, are in now. Plenty of people urged him, and plenty of people warned him—both inside his own Administration and out—that passivity would exact the highest price of all. He ignored them all.
But none of that matters now. U.S. foreign policy is not on videotape, so that we can, in effect, cut out this morning’s hangover and roll it back to late last night. What matters now is choosing the least bad among a set of all pretty bad options. We are fated to watch that play out over the coming autumn months. Next to a choice like that, a skunk in the barn just doesn’t seem all that serious a problem.