By delightful coincidence, former Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a previously scheduled speech on the same day President Obama is due to speak to the nation about the Islamic State, or rather speak again about the Islamic State, which, yes, Obama really did, once call the “JV” team and about which he recently confessed he had no strategy. We will find out whether he came up with one between that dreadful news conference and his speech tonight. Cheney provided some useful guidance in assessing the seriousness of the president’s remarks. Setting the stage he remarked:
I’m here to tell you that there’s a connection between . . . a disengaged president and some very volatile situations abroad. In a few hours, we’ll hear what he has in mind for the terrorist onslaught in Iraq. We can hope for — and we should look for — signs of a forceful, bold and immediate strategy to defeat ISIS. We can say already, however, that such a plan would mark an abrupt and dramatic departure from the record thus far.
This is the same president, after all, who not long ago was assuring the nation that “the tide of war is receding.” Those words suited his purpose at the time, in 2012. And yet of course that was the very time when dangers now obvious to all were gathering. In fact, all that receded from Iraq and elsewhere was American power, influence, and leadership. And if you think that American withdrawal marks an ebbing of conflict and a return to peace, then consider the new jihadist caliphate and all that will now be needed to clear it out.
First, we should hope tonight, as Cheney implored, that Obama does not immediately undercut U.S. action. “So often, President Obama responds to crises abroad by announcing all the things he will not do — and here, again, we can only hope the pattern ends today,” Cheney said. If we hear a time certain for the mission against the Islamic State, a declaration that we won’t be putting “boots on the ground” or a list of preconditions to action (e.g. Iraqi political harmony), we will know Obama hasn’t changed at all.
When the president speaks today, we need only to listen carefully for a true understanding of the nature and extent of this danger. And let me suggest a few markers to keep in mind — the basic signs of serious strategic thinking. A realistic strategy has to recognize that ISIS is a grave, strategic threat to the United States. The situation is dire and defeating these terrorists will require immediate, sustained, simultaneous action across multiple fronts. Phasing in our actions will not suffice. Such a strategy will only prolong the conflict and increase the casualties.
ISIS does not recognize a border between Syria and Iraq — so neither should we. We should immediately hit them in their sanctuaries, staging areas, command centers, and lines of communication wherever we find them. We should provide significantly increased numbers of military trainers, special operations forces, an intelligence architecture, and air power to aid the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga in their counteroffensive against ISIS.
He also urges we get serious about the broader threat from jihadists by spelling out the nature of the threat (“Al Qaeda is not ‘diminished,’ nor is the ‘tide of war receding.’ Wishing doesn’t make it so. Our president must understand we are at war and that we must do what it takes, for as long as it takes, to win.”) He also urges we support and militarily aid our Sunni allies, stop treating terrorism like a law enforcement matter and cease slashing our military. (“We simply cannot pursue a comprehensive strategy against terrorism at the same time we’re giving pink slips to captains and majors in the combat zone. . . . In this very time of hasty withdrawals, continuous disengagement, and such self-congratulation for all of it, we have also seen dramatic and devastating drawdowns in the military power of the United States.”)
Obama is unlikely to bring it up, for he sees each facet of the war against jihadism as distinct, but Cheney is right that we cannot forget about Iran:
We should make clear that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat to Israel, and to other nations in the region as well. We should refuse to accept any deal that allows them to continue to spin centrifuges and enrich uranium. The regime in Tehran must be made to understand that the United States will not allow that to happen, and that we will take military action if necessary to stop it.
It is not surprising that as we have lost focus and conveyed weakness Iran’s public statements have become more bellicose, and now Russia is meeting with Iran to discuss potential sanctions relief. This, of course, would be the final count in the indictment against Russian reset. One benefit Hillary Clinton has claimed was to secure Russia’s help with Iran. We now have the worst of all worlds — reconstitution of Russia’s empire plus undercutting the sanctions regime (already damaged by the ill-advised interim deal). Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies reminds us that this is the latest example of Russian duplicity. “Russia continues to play a very dangerous role with regard to Iran. Elements of Iran’s nuclear program [have] been supplied by the Russians. Russia also continues to provide advanced weaponry to the Iranians, including surface-to-air defense missiles, anti-tank, and radar,” he says via e-mail. “Of course, Russia also provides diplomatic protection to the Iranian axis — Syria in particular — at the United Nations.” In other words, he says, “The notion that we might get help from Russia on the Iranian front is wishful thinking.” And it surely counts among the most grievous miscalculations of the Obama-Clinton foreign policy.
Mark Dubowitz of FDD cautions, “We should never delude ourselves into thinking that these are men who want to see a buoyant Iranian economy with strong trading links to the West and thousands of Westerners flooding into Iran to take away their markets and corrupt their people. What they want to avoid is economic collapse that threatens the survival of their regime.” He adds, “Russia and China provide an economic escape hatch from the full power of Western sanctions without the dangers to the regime from trade and political liberalization while also allowing Iran’s hard men to retain the essential elements of their military-nuclear program.”
Whether it is Iran or the Islamic State or Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Cheney reminds us that the Obama philosophy shared by right-wing anti-interventionists is at the root of the problem. The world does not get by on its own, U.S. action is not the cause of the world’s ills and leaving the heavy lifting to international entities or regional allies without U.S. leadership and support make for disaster. Cheney noted:
We must deal with threats before they become grave dangers and dangers before they become catastrophes. That’s where the best kind of history is made — the story of awful things that never happened, because our foresight and resolve did not allow them.
President Obama likes to talk about cycles of history. I can tell you — it is the leadership of brave men and women that makes history. In particular, it has been the United States of America, time and again, that has answered threats, taken swift and determined action, kept the peace, and liberated millions.
Unless we have a president who understands that proactive, early action and a robust military force are essential to our national security, we will forever be racing to catch up to our enemies, which will have grown stronger as we dithered. It would be welcomed indeed if, however belatedly, Obama turned around on a dime. Let us not forget, however, that had he armed the Free Syrian Army sufficiently and used limited airstrikes more than a year ago, the Islamic State would not be where it is and tens of thousands of Syrians would not be dead, millions would not be refugees and Iran would not have been emboldened. Ultimately we need a president who doesn’t act only after the polls tell him to do so and becomes alert to serious threats only after international chaos, massive casualties and grievous damage to our alliances.