I’ve been rather hard on conservatives in the wake of the Paris attacks: Chris Christie, Ben Carson and so forth. It has occurred to the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts that this may be unfair. After all, it’s not like the Obama administration has covered itself in glory when it comes to its Syria policy. The most charitable way to describe the administration’s policy is that it’s simply trying to ensure that the stalemate on the ground persists. And if Paris shows anything, it’s that the merits of such a realpolitik approach may be overstated.
This, of course, leads to an obvious question: If the status quo is bad, what are the conservative alternatives?
I looked at Bret Stephens’s Wall Street Journal essay “The Islamist Tantrum” for answers — and got none. Here’s how it opens:
We live in the age of the sanctified tantrum — the political and religious furies we dare not name or shame, much less confront.
Students bully college administrators with contrived political demands. The administrators plead they can do better, then capitulate. Incompetent writers pen trite racial screeds aimed at the very society that lifts them above their ability. They are hailed as geniuses. Donald Trump’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination epitomizes the politics of the tantrum. He’s angry as hell, and so is his base. We’re supposed to respect this.
And then there is the tantrum of Islam, another eruption of rage that feeds off our astonishing willingness to indulge it.
Seriously, what am I supposed to do with this? Although I admire Stephens’s effort to lump together college students, Trump supporters and vague subtweets, one has to conclude that his essay itself is a tantrum. He’s not interested in contributing to a foreign policy debate, he’s interested in sharing his pain. He’s angry about many things, including the fact that none of the Democratic presidential candidates were willing to say the words “radical Islamists” — except that, as noted in this space on Monday, there’s a reason neither the Bush nor Obama administrations have done that. So there’s nothing really substantive here to engage.
Conservative author Kurt Schlichter asked me to look at his proposed strategy “for the total destruction of ISIS in 72 hours.” To his credit, he’s definitely offering a new and very different strategy from the status quo. Whether it’s a good strategy is another question. Here’s a taste:
The destruction of Raqqa was the first part of Operation Linebacker III, the leveraging of American air power to annihilate all urban centers controlled by ISIS forces. Covered from interference by Russian aircraft by a protective screen of F-22s, the B-52s worked their way from urban target to urban target, literally obliterating any ISIS-supporting town in Syria. This supported the … strategy of depriving ISIS of any of the vestiges of an actual nation state. The caliphate, to the extent it governed anything, would rule over rubble.
There’s a lot more like this, including:
- A close-to-150,000 force of Marines and U.S. Army ground troops moving into Syria and Iraq, along with nonstop bombing;
- Indiscriminate bombing of all Islamic State-held urban areas;
- Daily announcements by the Pentagon of body counts of Islamic State terrorists killed;
- Expedited military trials and executions of any Islamic State combatants taken prisoner;
- Threats to local Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq that they join the fight against Islamic State or be killed themselves.
The effect of this operation? According to Schlichter, “Iran, North Korea, Russia and China all saw and understood that they would need to govern themselves accordingly in the face of a post-Obama America. And it would be years before any terrorist group dared again threaten the United States.”
So, that’s an interesting strategy. The “body count announcement” part gave me a bad case of PTSD from undergraduate school readings about how the U.S. military focused way too much on body counts during the Vietnam War, to the point where it deleteriously affected the war effort. But it’s a strategy.
I have just a few questions about this strategy:
- What happens if the Russians do send their air power in to protect their forces already on the ground? What are the rules of engagement then?
- How does the entire Sunni population in the Middle East react to what would inevitably be massive civilian casualties in the wake of this kind of assault? Wouldn’t such a massacre trigger even more radical Islamists to become anti-American terrorists?
- Would the United States be obligated to conduct similar operations in other failed states, such as Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Afghanistan? If so, how many troops would that take? If not, what would be the anticipated response from the Islamic State franchises?
- How much public support would there be for the announcement of 150,000 boots on the ground in Syria? How sustainable would that support be if the war plan doesn’t, you know, go according to plan?
- What happens the day after victory is declared? Do U.S. troops engage in state-building in Syria? If so, what would that look like? Is Syrian state-building even possible with the Syrian army, the al-Nusra Front, or other armed groups also on the ground? If not, wouldn’t this just be a massive exercise in “mowing the grass,”as the Israelis put it, requiring subsequent U.S. intervention?
As someone who was horrified by the Paris attacks, and would very much like to see civilization wipe the Islamic State from the face of the Earth, I think Schlichter’s essay reads like some lovely wish casting. But the idea that “Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom’s Greatest Hits!” would actually work as planned rests on a critical assumption: the belief that every other relevant actor will choose to bandwagon rather than balance despite a horrific battlefield strategy. To put it gently, that’s a horrible assumption.
So yeah, I’m unhappy with President Obama’s strategy. But as Ben Domenech noted in his podcast on Federalist Radio on Wednesday, it’s not like conservatives have covered themselves in glory with their proposed alternatives.