Dennis Ross, President Obama’s former Middle East senior adviser, has a compelling dissection of his ex-boss’s failures and some sage advice for going forward. He, too, was appalled at the president’s “no strategy” remark. He writes: “With those words, President Obama seems to have encapsulated everything that his critics have been alleging for months: that he’s improvising, halting and altogether slow to react to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, the brutal terrorist group that has seized much of Iraq and Syria and on Tuesday claimed to have beheaded a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff.”
However, Ross correctly notes that criticism is not a policy. Devising a coherent policy does not, as the president suggested in Estonia, entail waiting around for Iraq to stabilize or the Europeans to climb on board. As to the latter, no ally is going to climb aboard unless it knows what the mission is and how we’re going to achieve it. Ross observes that “if the United States does not mobilize and coordinate a multinational response, one is unlikely to emerge, much less be coherent. Moreover, the readiness of others in the region to act — overtly and covertly — will depend on seeing what the United States is prepared to do. Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken eloquently about putting together a global coalition to confront ISIL; when he goes to the Middle East later this week, however, the Saudis and others will ask him pointed questions about U.S. strategy.”
That means dealing with the Syria debacle that was allowed to fester by U.S. inertness. We blew the chance to nip the Islamic State in the bud, so now we must address the full-blown operation that transverses the Iraq-Syria border, and we must destroy it:
In Syria since 2011, there has been a mismatch between the United States’ objective of having President Bashar al-Assad go and the means it has been prepared to apply to achieve that end.
Small wonder, therefore, that the administration is struggling now to decide what it should do against ISIL in Syria. It wants to weaken ISIL without strengthening Assad, and yet not be drawn into the Syrian civil war. Avoidance as a strategy in Syria, however, is no longer tenable.
If ISIL is a “cancer,” as President Obama has correctly called it, we cannot avoid attacking its presence in Syria. Containment cannot be the objective; rollback must be our aim. The president has said as much — including in last week’s press conference — but again, we are not applying the means to achieve that end.
No wonder Obama does not have a strategy; an effective one will highlight his failures and contradict his instincts and preference for inactivity. But we have no choice. The Islamic State took root in Syria, spilled into Iraq and now must be dealt with in its entirety. Ross advises a “comprehensive” strategy that includes dealing with the Islamic State in Syria, helping to “protect those Sunni tribes that will fight the group,” and enlisting the leading Sunni states and have them play a role that goes beyond only writing checks.” The last is problematic since – as we saw from their independent strikes in Libya — our Sunni partners have lost faith in us. It is essential to rebuild those frayed relationships. Ross writes, “None of this will happen by itself. The United States will have to be prepared to act in Syria in a way that is credible to our key Sunni partners. But if they want us to use air power, logistical support and our intelligence means more systematically, including in Syria, we need to know what they are prepared to do directly as well. After all, ISIL is far more of a threat to them than it is to us.”
We certainly do NOT want to rope in Iran and/or Assad, as some have bizarrely suggested. We have parallel interests in disarming Iran and ending its sponsorship of terror and efforts to subvert its neighbors. We already have a problem with the malignant influence of Iran and its allies, and we need not make it worse. And we must stop ruling out options (e.g. boots on the ground). In essence, what Ross is saying is that we must lead from the front and be prepared to use sufficient firepower to crush the Islamic State. No wonder the president is stalling. This is his worst nightmare.
UPDATE: The ideas Ross advances have a new supporter. I am delighted to see that for now Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) is sticking with his new hawkish incarnation, albeit one totally at odds with his past writings and statements, in backing military action and a comprehensive plan to defeat the Islamic State. He does, however, insist that our aid to rebels in Syria strengthened the Islamic State. As numerous foreign policy types (and even libertarian Richard Epstein) have pointed out, this is false. First, we didn’t provide any meaningful support to anyone (hence the conservative critics’ complaint for three years), and second, we provided it to the Free Syrian Army, which is not an “ally” of the Islamic State, but is in fact in a two-front war against it. That said, we commend Paul for getting in sync with those he previously criticized. (Whether one should trust him going forward is an entirely different matter.) It’s not easy to repudiate an emphatic and misguided policy, especially one reiterated in so many columns and remarks.