Opinion

The Great Debate

To beat Islamic State, Obama needs Iran

Masked Sunni gunmen pray during a patrol outside the city of Falluja

President Barack Obama delivered a speech Wednesday night designed for an American public that has been losing confidence in its commander in chief.  Much of his address was about attitude — we are tough, we will act, we will prevail, but we will do all this with airpower, not boots on the ground (or not many) and in cooperation with friends and allies. This mission will not be a repeat of Afghanistan or Iraq (President George W. Bush’s wars), Obama promised, but will be more like Obama’s campaigns against al Qaeda — don’t forget he killed Osama bin Laden! — and the continuing strikes against radical Islamists in Somalia and Yemen.

But the president must know that the Islamic State cannot be treated like the insurgents in Somalia and Yemen. The reason this group has caused such concern is that it is not just one more localized group of violent guerrillas. It is an embryonic state that is beginning to govern large areas of the Sunni heartlands of Iraq and Syria. So it will not easily be bombed into oblivion, nor will it suffice to take out its top leader with a skillfully executed commando raid, as in Pakistan.

Militant Islamist fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa provinceBoots on the ground will be needed to retake the territory now under Islamic State control. But the president has said they will not be our boots. So whose?

His Iraq case is easier to address. Baghdad has a new government that may be capable of rebuilding its security forces and enlisting the cooperation of the Kurdish peshmerga in the north and some Sunni tribes in Anbar province.

This is more a hope than a reality at this point. But it is crucial that an Iraqi presence on the ground be ready to confront Islamic State forces — especially when the battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, comes into focus. It was the loss of Mosul, after all, that made these militants look so threatening, and it will be Mosul’s recovery that could signal Islamic State’s first major reversal of fortune.

Obama is picking his targets in Iraq and Syria while missing the point

U.S. President Barack Obama makes remarks on the situation in Syria, in Washington

“We are now living in what we might as well admit is the Age of Iraq,” New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks recently wrote.  There, in the Land of the Two Rivers, he continued, the United States confronts the “core problem” of our era — “the interaction between failing secular governance and radical Islam.”

Brooks is wrong. For starters, he misconstrues the core problem — which is a global conflict pitting tradition against modernity.

Traditionalists, especially numerous in but not confined to the Islamic world, cling to the conviction that human existence should be God-centered human order. Proponents of modernity, taking their cues from secularized Western elites, strongly prefer an order that favors individual autonomy and marginalizes God. Not God first, but we first — our own aspirations, desires and ambitions. If there’s a core problem afflicting global politics today, that’s it.

If U.S. joins Islamic State fight, how will it get out?

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers a statement from Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

When President Barack Obama makes the case for military action against Islamic State militants on Wednesday night, it won’t be hard to convince Americans to get involved in the conflict. The hard part will be explaining how we get out.

The president is speaking to the American people — not to Congress. He may not even ask Congress to authorize the use of force. Just to fund it. Which they will do because they don’t want to undercut the U.S. military.

Obama’s key audience Wednesday is the American public. For his credibility with the public has gotten dangerously low. Obama was elected in 2008 as the un-Bush — a more thoughtful, less reckless leader. Yet the public always valued President George W. Bush’s resolve and decisiveness — qualities they don’t see in Obama. Qualities they are looking for now.

How to prevent Westerners from fighting for the Islamic State and al Qaeda

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One of the most troubling aspects of the slaying of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff is that a well-spoken man with a British accent appears to have been the killer. The fact that an educated Westerner slaughtered other educated Westerners and then put their murder tapes on the Web was enough to dominate the news cycle.

But this violent Westerner in black is not alone. Some 500 British citizens have joined the fight in the Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, alongside thousands of other foreigners. Some 250 have since returned to the UK. Most have joined hardcore jihadist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (now renamed the ‘Islamic State’) and al Qaeda-proxy, Jabhat al-Nusra. Many have killed and have been killed; it was only earlier this summer that an American attacker, Florida native Moner Mohammad Abusalha, struck a restaurant with an explosive-laden truck—and with him at the wheel.

Other Americans suspected of fighting for the Islamic State have been killed even more recently.

US strategy vs. Islamic State: Better right than fast

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In her recently published memoir Hard Choices, former Senator Hillary Clinton recounts the meeting, nine days after the election of 2008, when President-elect Barack Obama first asked her to be his secretary of state. He “presented a well-considered argument,” she writes, “explaining that he would have to concentrate most of his time and attention on the economic crisis and needed someone of stature to represent him abroad.”

No doubt he meant that sincerely — the U.S. financial system was still deep in crisis — but in the context of events this summer, Obama’s assumption that he would be focused mainly on domestic concerns suggests how little even a president of the United States can claim control of world events. The murders of American journalists James Foley and now Steven Sotloff by the Islamic State have put a very fine point on that.

Few U.S. presidents have faced as many disparate foreign-policy challenges as those that confronted Barack Obama this summer. Last month alone, he managed to help remove the too-sectarian leader of Iraq, helped to stand up a more inclusive government there, then launched a campaign of air strikes to support efforts to keep it from folding further into the Islamic State. The month began with a “green on blue” attack in Afghanistan that cost the life of a U.S. general (the first such casualty in 44 years) and ended with a resumption of political hostilities between presidential candidates that took  the Afghan government to the brink of collapse on the eve of the U.S. troop withdrawal. Meanwhile “liberated” post-Gadaffi Libya slid further toward chaos, Israel waged war with Hamas in Gaza, and Russia more or less invaded Ukraine.

The best weapon to fight the Islamic State is already in Iraq

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter stands guard at the Bakirta frontline near the town of Makhmur

In 21st century Iraq, the enemy is not a state, though it calls itself one. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is a group of Islamist insurgents whose presence stretches across the border between Syria and Iraq.

The only way to defeat the Islamic State is through military force, but Americans will not be doing the fighting on the ground. General John Allen, who commanded NATO forces in Afghanistan, has observed that, “the Kurds, the Sunnis and the Free Syrian resistance elements of the region are the ‘boots on the ground’ necessary to the success of this campaign.”

Make no mistake: dismantling a nascent Islamic State is a serious undertaking, involving thousands of U.S. personnel and a robust interagency effort. The insurgents are ruthless, resourceful and are adept at weaving themselves into the fabric of the region, making them virtually undetectable until they strike. If President Barack Obama’s strategy is to “contain” ISIL, not destroy it, as the New York Times reported on Aug.  22, he will fail.

from Jim Gaines:

Waiting for the cold light of day in Missouri and the Middle East

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Aside from the strange fact that both the Ferguson Police Department and the barbarians of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are using U.S. armor and weaponry, the shooting death of Michael Brown and the murder of James Foley would seem to have little in common, about as little as the Midwest and the Middle East.

Yet the similarities are evocative. Both frame enormously complex problems in the context of a single, riveting incident. Both were deaths in the American family, calling every parent to feel something of the Brown and Foley parents’ bottomless grief and to think, if only for an instant, “there but for the grace of God….”

Both events draw attention to life-and-death issues that call on every resource of our minds and hearts: What to do about racial divisions at home and the horrific outbreak of lethal sectarianism abroad.

In Iraq, U.S. is spending millions to blow up captured American war machines

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Last week was a weird one for American military hardware.

In the United States, Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles (MRAPs), AR-15s and camouflage body armor all made an appearance on the streets of a suburb in the heartland, helping to give a tense situation the push needed to turn into a week of riots. American citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, feeling they were being occupied by a foreign army, rather than their friendly neighborhood cop on the beat.

Riot police stand guard as demonstrators protest the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri

MRAPs didn’t get a better rap overseas, either. In what’s still being called Iraq — at least for the sake of convenience — the U.S. Air Force has resumed bombing missions in the northern part of the “country.” The aim of the missions is stated as being the defense of a minority group known as the Yazidis, who practice a religion unique to themselves and are under threat by the Islamic State, a jihadi group that controls a large chunk of territory in Syria and Iraq.

The extremist cadre Islamic State — which has declared itself to be the new caliphate, representing God’s will on earth — has had an incredible string of military successes over the last few months. They’ve taken a lot of territory. They’ve slaughtered a lot of people, including civilians. They’ve imposed what they say is Islamic law — though many Islamic scholars would beg to disagree.

For once, the situation in Iraq wasn’t caused by an intelligence failure

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Sinjar mountain, near the Syrian border town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate

President Barack Obama, in an interview earlier this year with New Yorker editor David Remnick, offered an unfortunate comparison. “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate,” the president said, “is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

The president’s jayvee jihadists were the Islamic State militants.

Remnick called the analogy “uncharacteristically flip.” After all, the group’s flag then flew over Fallujah.

Today, the Islamic State boasts a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, a cadre of battle-hardened fighters that dwarfs the membership of core al Qaeda and an international following large enough to support a brick-and-mortar gift shop in Turkey.

With or without Maliki, Iraq will tear itself apart

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The word out of Washington is Nouri al-Maliki must go. A new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will unify Iraq with American help.

We’ve seen this movie before — an attempt at a quick fix of Iraq’s problems. Like every other quick fix tried, this one will fail, too. The United States is ignoring the inevitable: Iraq will eventually dissolve into separate nation-states. Efforts are needed to manage that process, not to hope it will go away.

Some history. Following the regime change of 2003 and the elimination of Saddam Hussein, the United States failed to create any civil structure to fill the vacuum. Religious, ethnic, tribal and geographic tensions in Iraq were unleashed (I’ll label it all Sunni-Shi’ite-Kurd as shorthand, though the reality is much more complex.) A U.S.-patched-together “government” (the Governing Council, of which Abadi was a part) accomplished little more than marking the first failed quick fix in the Iraq story.

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