Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, is a member of the U.S. Senate.
The fall of the Iraqi city of Ramadi to the Islamic State and recent gains by the group in Syria are the latest signs that President Obama’s strategy to defeat this brutal terrorist group is failing. But the problem is far bigger than that. The president’s entire approach to the Middle East has backfired.
The Middle East is more dangerous and unstable than when Obama came into office — a time when Iraq and Syria were more stable, the Iranian nuclear program was considerably less advanced and the Islamic State did not yet exist.
Much of this instability is a result of Obama’s disengagement from the region, best symbolized by the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. The vacuum created by America’s pullback has been filled by bad actors, including terrorist extremists, both Sunni and Shiite, who have flourished in the absence of U.S. leadership.
On one side are the radical Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and affiliated groups. The Islamic State has capitalized on the political grievances many Iraqi Sunnis have with their sectarian Shiite leaders, as well as the divisions between Syrian Sunnis and the brutal Alawite-dominated Assad regime, which is supported by Iran. The Islamic State’s black banner is now spreading as far afield as Libya and Afghanistan.
On the other side is Iran, a country run by a militant Shiite clerical regime that is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism and has as its primary goal regional domination and the export of the Iranian revolution. As the Obama administration has focused on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, Tehran has exploited U.S. weakness and expanded its reach into Syria, Iraq and Yemen, among other countries.
To begin to deal with the challenges we face, we need a reassertion of U.S. leadership in the region and specifically in the fight against the Islamic State. This should include the following:
● Broaden the coalition. We should build and lead a coalition of our regional partners that will work to defeat the Islamic State. In addition to the Kurds and Sunni tribes, this should include the Persian Gulf countries and those such as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, many of which realize that this fight is not just a military one but also an ideological battle for the heart and soul of Islam. The current coalition is suffering because our allies and friends doubt our commitment to this effort.
● Increase U.S. involvement in the fight. As part of this multinational effort, the president should increase the number of U.S. forces in Iraq and remove restrictions on their ability to embed with the Iraqi units they are training and advising. Having the proper number of U.S. forces in Iraq is crucial for both weaning the Iraqi government off its reliance on Iran for military assistance and moving toward a unified and inclusive Iraq.
We also need to increase the frequency and pace of airstrikes and Special Operations raids against the Islamic State — and ensure that we are assisting a wide range of local actors, especially Sunni tribes — not just the central government in Baghdad, which has been overly reliant on Shiite militias controlled by Iran. We need to make clear to Iran that any attacks by its proxies in Iraq against U.S. personnel will result in a response from the United States.
● Not cut a bad deal with Iran. Among the reasons that I have been so vocally opposed to the outline of the Iranian deal announced by Obama is that, in addition to leaving Iran as a nuclear threshold state, we will also be providing the regime with billions of dollars of sanctions relief to fuel its export of terrorism and further its regional expansionism, including its efforts to undermine Iraq’s stability.
● Prevent the Islamic State’s expansion beyond Iraq and Syria. We need to act more quickly to prevent the emergence of other failed and failing states that are fertile territory for the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. Addressing instability before countries devolve into anarchy is essential. Libya is a prime example.
Because of the Obama administration’s “lead from behind” approach to the effort to topple Moammar Gaddafi, Libya is a growing haven for the Islamic State, where the group is able to freely control large swaths of territory for training and recruitment for the fight in Iraq and Syria, just as al-Qaeda once used Afghanistan for its operations against the United States.
Despite the enormousness of the challenge, we can still defeat the enemies that we face in a Middle East that remains crucial to U.S. national interests and security. Doing so will require urgent action and leadership from President Obama before our options get even worse.