The same voices who refused to recognize the growing threat of ISIS before it took root in Syria and Iraq now claim we have no viable options for confronting a fundamental threat to the United States and its allies. I suppose we could commit civilizational suicide and simply give up defending ourselves and our allies. There are, thankfully, a range of actions we can take.
We begin by recognizing the nature of the threat and the impossibility of “containing” the Islamic State, which the president seems to be talking about when he promises to “roll back,” but not destroy it.
Evan Moore, a foreign policy analyst for the conservative Foreign Policy Initiative, argues, “ISIS poses a severe threat to the Middle East, Europe, and the United States. Left unchecked, the group will not only undermine more governments in the region, but also launch attacks against the West. Defeating ISIS will certainly require significant time and resources, and the administration must articulate a clear strategy for this effort. Indeed, President Obama described ISIS as a ‘cancer.’ Over the past two years, this cancer has metastasized, and the United States will need to use every tool at its disposal to remove this danger.”
Those who don’t want to confront the Islamic State, most visibly Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (and President Obama — who thinks social media, not the chaos unleashed in the vacuum his failed foreign policy left, makes the world seem scarier), argue that we have a binary choice between a despot like Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State, or between Islamic State and Iran. This is false, no matter how many times it is repeated. We’ve referenced a compelling call for help to the Free Syrian Army, a group that had it received aid and support years ago would not have been besieged by a two-front war against Assad and ISIS. We’d do well to follow Moore’s advice to, however belatedly, come to FSA’s aid in a meaningful way: “[T]he Obama administration should accelerate and expand its $500 million initiative to train and arm Syrians to fight both the Assad regime and Islamist extremist groups like ISIS. It should also immediately provide mainstream groups anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to enable them to defend themselves from a potentially-devastating attack against the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.” Moore points out:
Policymakers and lawmakers should instead view the mainstream Syrian opposition as they view the Kurdish Peshmerga militia — a group that shares U.S. interests and values, and badly needs U.S. support. With over 191,000 Syrians having been killed since March 2011, the Obama administration should make every effort to end this conflict — which means supporting America’s natural allies in the mainstream opposition.
The notion that the Islamic State arose, spread and grew in ferocity because the United States was doing too much in the region is nonsense,. As former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who resigned in disgust over our non-policy in Syria, explained in June:
The events on the ground are moving more rapidly than our policy has been adapting. And at the same time, Russia and Iran have been driving this by increasing and steadily increasing, increasing massively, especially the Iranians, their support to the Syrian regime.
And the result of that has been more threats to us in this ungoverned space which Assad can’t retake. We need and we have long needed to help moderates in the Syrian opposition with both weapons and other nonlethal assistance. Had we done that a couple of years ago, had we ramped it up, frankly, the al-Qaida groups that have been winning adherents would have been unable to compete with the moderates, who, frankly, we have much in common with.
But the moderates have been fighting constantly with arms tied behind their backs, because they don’t have the same resources that either Assad does or the al-Qaida groups in Syria do.
Frankly, Hillary Clinton understood this, but lacked the will or ability to convince the president to heed her advice She was too timid (or too ambitious for her own presidency) to resign and go public — that is, until her path to the presidency was imperiled by the Syria-Iraq debacle. Others refused and still refuse to recognize we have a fundamental interest in seeing which players prevail in Syria and Iraq. Maybe we should start heeding the advice of people like Ford, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and conservative critics of the administration who sounded the alarm consistently for years and vigorously backed military action to enforce the red line. Maybe those who think we don’t have a dog in the fight or suggested there is nothing to be done or refused to support action against Assad after his use of chemical weapons should be held accountable for opposing action when the Islamic State threat was manageable and for misleading the public about the extent of the force that would be necessary to thwart our enemies. At the very least they shouldn’t be promoted.