Obama expects ISIS to still be in power when he leaves the White House

Rami Khouri: [C]ombining American militarism with Arab dictatorships is probably the stupidest recipe that anybody could possibly come up with to try to fight jihadi movements like al-Qaeda and Islamic State and others, because it was that combination of Arab autocracy and American militarism that actually nurtured and let these movements expand. There has to be a more intelligent, more realistic process that allows the people in the Middle East to roll back these threats. And these people need to be fought; I’m not saying you sit around and do nothing. You have to fight these people and eradicate them…

What do we do about this Islamic State? These guys are taking more territory. They’re enforcing their rule by force, by terrorizing people. And very few people are happily accepting them. They don’t — you know, ordinary people don’t have a choice. If the Islamic State comes in with their guns and chops people’s heads off or crucifies a couple of people, everybody else stays [inaudible]. And this should be a telltale sign that these groups only can operate in zones of chaos. And the United States and others, the British, have helped create these zones of chaos in the last 20 years in Afghanistan and in Iraq, most recently. So, there’s really a lot of shared responsibility for this terrible situation we’re in, but the bottom line is we need to figure out how to fight the two real problems, which Obama keeps repeating as his strategy, the two real problems of autocratic, nondemocratic, abusive, corrupt, pretty inefficient and mediocre Arab government systems, Arab regimes, across the board. And the other one is the repeated use of American, British, Israeli, other military power in the region to try to enforce an order that the West and the Israelis and others feel is suitable for them. Those two problems are two of the root causes of all of these issues that we’re seeing, and the Islamic State is simply a symptom of years and years of this, of these kinds of problems of bad governance.

The driving force behind President Obama’s formulation of a strategy for dealing with ISIS appears to have been the mere fact that he inadvertently revealed he lacked such a strategy.

In other words, the strategy he is about to unveil on Wednesday is not really a strategy for dealing with ISIS; it’s a strategy for dealing with the fact that he looked inept when he said he didn’t have a strategy.

Having been forced by embarrassment to quickly formulate this strategy, it appears to have been stitched together as an effort to deflect earlier criticisms. For instance, in Libya the administration was embarrassed by Obama’s reluctance to lead. This time, the New York Times reports, “the Obama administration is no longer ‘leading from behind,’ but plans to play the central role in building a coalition to counter ISIS.”

Still, by framing this as an operation likely to last longer than his administration, the president wants to insulate himself from the risk of personal failure, while most likely he passes on the most difficult phase to his successor:

The final, toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation — destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria — might not be completed until the next administration.

What do we do about ISIS?

This isn’t a debate about the pros and cons of military action. As Khouri says: “You have to fight these people and eradicate them.”

If Obama invests less time on message management and more on genuine strategic thinking, then he might see that the coalition he’s trying to build should place at its core the people who have the ability and desire to fight ISIS: Syrians, Iraqis, and Kurds who should not be used as proxy forces following the commands of the Pentagon, but fighters fighting their own war with U.S. and allied support.

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2 thoughts on “Obama expects ISIS to still be in power when he leaves the White House

  1. hquain

    “Still, by framing this as an operation likely to last longer than his administration, the president wants to insulate himself from the risk of personal failure…”

    Could this be the key insight into Obama’s mysterious mode of (in)action? That he’s not driven by cool calculation, but by pervasive, paralyzing anxiety?

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    I once got a fortune cookie which would have been good for Obama: “A goal is a dream with a deadline.”

    All the evidence suggests Obama has a huge amount of commitment anxiety. Remember this one?

    “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” April 5, 2009.

    But note, it wasn’t his commitment — it was America’s. And so he immediately added: “This goal will not be reached quickly –- perhaps not in my lifetime.”

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