His political opponents, he said, believe that “only Christians, proven Christians, should be admitted” as refugees and that we “shouldn’t admit 3-year old-orphans.”
The President’s efforts to divert attention from his foreign policy debacles (which helped make orphans and refugees of three-year-olds) have so far fallen flat. The vast majority of Americans has lost confidence in his campaign against the Islamic State. A Washington Post poll found that 57 percent disapprove of the way he’s dealing with the terrorist group – including 46 percent who strongly disapprove – against only 35 percent who support him.
That public sentiment, of little interest to the President, is a leading concern for those vying to succeed him. Even Bernie Sanders claims to have a plan to destroy the Islamic State. Though they differ in certain respects, most of these plans call for dropping more bombs against more targets from planes flying the flags of more countries (with the possible exception of Russia), providing more arms to factions we don’t really know and can’t really trust, and deploying more military “advisers” (not to be confused with “boots on the ground”) to the region.
All of them suggest that Islamic State can be vanquished with relative ease and at little cost. All of them are blowing smoke.
Hillary Clinton advanced her plan in a recent address to the Council on Foreign Relations. The speech aimed to make her sound smart and tough, and in the process put some distance between herself and the President. But not too much, given her dependence on him to turn out minority voters in next November’s elections. So she settled for metaphors, suggesting that that she didn’t want a new strategy so much as an “intensification, an acceleration” of the existing one.
She was, however, willing to suggest that mistakes were made – by the President, of course, not by his former Secretary of State. “I thought we needed to do more earlier,” she said, “to try to identify indigenous Syrian fighters, so-called ‘moderates’ – and I do think there were some early on – that we could have done more to help them in their fight against Assad.”
So if the President had vetted, trained and armed more Syrian moderates back when Syrian moderates existed, things might have turned out differently. Clinton didn’t mention that the U.S. government last month scrapped its program to recruit moderates after $500 million in spending netted fewer than 80 soldiers, many of whom fled soon after entering combat.
That wasn’t her only recasting of history. Clinton repeatedly cited Libya as a foreign policy success, overlooking the fact that our removal of Gaddafi produced a jihadi jungle every bit as deadly as the one that prevails in Syria, one that now includes an Islamic State stronghold.
But her biggest whopper was her account of the last Iraq War. She praised what she called the “first Sunni awakening,” in which America persuaded Sunni tribes “join us in rooting out Al Qaeda.” She neglected to mention that the “awakening” was caffeinated by the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops — President Bush’s so-called surge, which she heartily opposed. The counterinsurgency won the backing of Sunni tribesmen and resulted in an Iraq that President Obama in December 2011 described as “sovereign, stable and self-reliant” with “a representative government that was elected by its people.”
She blamed former Iraqi president Nouri al-Maliki (the choice of two American presidents – Bush and Obama – to lead Iraq) for squandering these gains, leaving the tribesmen “betrayed and forgotten.” But it was President Obama’s decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq that convinced Sunnis it was Washington, as much as Baghdad, that had “betrayed and forgotten” them.
Her revisionism aside, Clinton offered this bit of gobbledygook as her plan to defeat the Islamic State:
“We have to fit a lot of pieces together, bring along a lot of partners, move on multiple fronts at once. But if we press forward on both sides of the border, in the air and on the ground, as well as diplomatically, I do believe we can crush ISIS’s enclave of terror.”
It was a muddle-headed prescription and one not dissimilar from what many Republicans offer. No-fly zones, arming factions, urging Europeans and Arabs to pile into the conflict and a laundry list of tough-sounding military clichés have become staples of the President’s critics on both sides of the aisle.
No-Fly Zones Won’t Fly
The problems with establishing a no-fly zone became evident last week when Turkey downed a Russian bomber they say crossed into its airspace. Had Russia retaliated militarily, Turkey, a NATO member, could have invoked Article 5 of its charter, which provides that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all. Thus could war with the Islamic State risk war with Russia.
Clinton said she hopes “to work with the Russians to be able to” impose a no-fly zone over northern Syria. Good luck with that. The no-fly zone’s purpose is to facilitate Assad’s overthrow by shielding rebels from Russian and Syrian government airstrikes. The success of a no-fly zone thus would require either that Putin ground his own planes or that American fighter jets shoot them out of the sky. Neither seems likely.
While the U.S. and its allies would be responsible for prosecuting the air war, Clinton would outsource ground combat to various factions. She lists Kurds, Sunni tribesmen and the Iraqi army among those who would do our dirty work.
The problem with proxies is that they do not pursue our agenda, but their own. When the Kurds or Shiite militia capture territory from IS, they often persecute the Sunni Muslims Clinton hopes to woo. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Kurds have razed or partially demolished 50 predominantly Sunni Arab villages they have captured since July. In Iraq and Syria, the Journal reports, “Sunni Arabs are either fleeing, being forced out or are blocked from returning to areas seized by Kurds or Iran-backed groups.”
Containing the Islamic State means facilitating land (and oil) grabs by Kurds and Shiite militias at the expense of Sunni tribesmen. Thus does the success of our proxies incite the very grievances among Sunnis that nourished al Qaeda and birthed the Islamic State.
Made In The U.S.A.
Clinton would nevertheless rely on these proxies and thinks we should do more to arm them. She seems not to have noticed that the region already is awash in American weapons and that virtually every faction has them. The Washington Post published a video of a Free Syrian Army soldier shouting “Allahu Akbar!” after using his U.S.-made TOW missile to destroy a U.S.-manufactured Humvee.
It is not clear who owned the Humvee. The Post speculated that it may have belonged to “U.S.-supplied Iraqi militias who have since entered Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad.” It also suggested that it may have belonged to IS, which boasts an impressive arsenal of American weapons.
The hunger for weapons is, of course, insatiable and we can continue to feed it, so long as we don’t much care who gets their hands on them or how they are used. But it is hard to see how this advances our aims. We can’t control the proxies we’re arming, much less the arms we’re supplying.
What If ISIS Were Destroyed?
Yet Clinton and most GOP presidential aspirants would have us believe that this mix of no-fly zones, increased bombing, and arming rival factions is the formula for destroying the Islamic State. Even if it were, it is fair to ask what would become of the region if the IS were removed. What sort of lasting arrangement would prevail among warring Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribesmen; al Nusra, al Qaeda and its other offshoots; the Free Syrian Army, Kurds, Turkmen, Hezbollah, Islamic Front, Yazidis; and Assad loyalists among the Alawites and Christians?
That is a question Clinton and her Republican rivals prefer to avoid. It was, however, put to Clinton toward the end of her appearance.
“If the only way you can put together a moderate Syrian force is by having the United States cajole, bribe, arm and train it,” the questioner began, “we are then looking for this force to defeat ISIS, then defeat Assad, then defeat al-Nusra, then defeat other Al Qaeda affiliates, keep at bay the Shiite militias and Hezbollah, take control of Damascus and establish a pluralistic democracy in Syria. Isn’t that a tall order?”
Clinton ventured a rambling answer, sounding like an unprepared student trying to bluff her way through an exam.
“We have to prioritize” the fight against ISIS, she said, “and then we need to figure out how we put together a political outcome … so that the separate communities within Syria will be able to re-create a Syrian state, even though it probably is unlikely it will be controlled by the Alawites from Damascus the same way it was before the civil war started.”
In other words, Clinton has no idea of how the deadly conflict might be constructively resolved, even if her questionable strategy to destroy IS actually worked. Nor do her prospective Republican opponents.
We are now entering our fifteenth year of war in the region. The only strategy against jihadists that can fairly be called successful was the surge – a massive counterinsurgency that pacified Iraq and provided political stability, but that brought thousands of American casualties and required open-ended occupation.
If we want to achieve a military objective as complex and difficult as destroying IS – without leaving the region worse off than before — we can’t simply ship arms, drop bombs and hope for the best. We have to be willing to put American lives on the line.
Voters will not support another massive deployment of U.S. ground troops to the region or tolerate the ensuing losses. Presidential contenders from both parties know that. So they profess to have plans to subdue the region’s maniacal jihadists without risking American casualties.
If only it were that easy.