Last night, in a prime time address to the American people, the president outlined his strategy for defeating the terrorist group known as ISIS. He spoke of coalitions and airstrikes and military advisors. He called his plan a “counterterrorism strategy;” never once uttering the word “war.” In fact he made a point of assuring the American people that this “strategy” would be altogether different from the “wars” that Americans had been witnessing in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past thirteen years.
Afterward I watched a host of pundits and politicians weigh in on the president’s remarks. Their impressions were as one would expect…criticism from the right…accolades from the left. The most interesting, substantive and revealing comments came from war correspondences imbedded in Iraq and Syria. Perhaps I feel that way because their impressions reflected my own.
If you follow this space you know that yesterday I posted a series of questions that I was looking for the president to address in his speech. Here are those questions and my opinion as to how they were answered.
- What is the goal? The president said quite clearly that his goal was to “degrade and destroy ISIS.”
- What is the strategy? The president said the United States would lead a broad coalition of regional partners in taking the fight to ISIS. He said that the US would conduct air strikes against ISIS targets in Iraq and that he had NOT ruled out extending those air strikes into Syria. The president made it clear that his strategy did NOT include American ground forces. He expects ground support to come from a reorganized Iraqi army under the authority of a newly installed Iraqi government. He sees additional ground support coming from more moderate rebel factions in Syria. He said that the US would also be involved in training and supplying the Iraqi army and moderate rebel forces in Syria and that he was sending an additional 475 US military advisors into the region to assist in that effort. He said that the US would continue to provide humanitarian assistance in the region as needed.
- Who are the players? Other than the Iraqi army and the moderate rebel factions in Syria the president did not name the members of his “broad coalition” nor did he outline the part they would play in his strategy.
- What is the exit strategy? Yesterday I said that for me this was the most important question of all. What happens next? The president made no mention of what he believes the future holds once ISIS is defeated.
- Will the president call on Congress to support his strategy against ISIS? The president made it clear that he believes that he has the authority to execute his strategy without the support of congress. But he said that he would welcome congressional support because he believes that America’s interests are best served when the country is unified in its efforts. He did ask congress to provide the additional resources ($) to train the Iraqi army and Syrian rebels.
I don’t feel good about this!
First of all let me say that I was disheartened to hear the president make the case for a military strategy that for me was little more than a repeat of failed campaigns of years gone by. “Strategic air strikes” supported by “local armies” trained by a handful of “US military advisors” who are not…repeat…“not combat troops.” Pull out any historical documentation of the early days of the Vietnam War and tell me you don’t get a bad feeling in the pit of your stomach.
I was also disheartened to hear the president parse his words to carefully avoid calling this “strategy” what it really is…a war. We are dropping bombs on targets in foreign countries…killing enemy combatants and most likely innocent civilians. American pilots are risking their lives in flying those missions. The “military advisors” are operating in a war zone. At some point one of those planes will be shot down. And American pilot will be captured. A “military advisor” will be killed. The result will be an escalation in the conflict. Calling this a “counterterrorism strategy” is disingenuous. This is war! Let’s call it what is.
The president says that his goal is to degrade and eventually destroy ISIS. Fair enough. By every account that I have read this cannot be done without destroying ISIS’ command and control centers in Syria. And ISIS cannot be destroyed without the use of ground forces to support the air strikes. The president said that he would not shy away from expanding the US air strikes against targets in Syria. He did NOT say that he was authorizing them. Why the reluctance?
The president said that his strategy relied on ground forces to support the air strikes. The ground support he cited is supposed to come from the Iraqi army and moderate rebels in Syria. We have already spent $25 billion dollars to arm and train the Iraqi army only to see them throw down their arms and run at the first confrontation with ISIS. What is different now? According to imbedded correspondents, many local villagers have sided with ISIS because they hate or are afraid of the Iraqi army. It is true that moderate rebels in Syria have battled against ISIS. But they are no friend of the United States. Correspondents in the Syria confirm that America journalist David Sotlof was imbedded with the “more moderate Syrian rebels” when he was sold to ISIS. ISIS later beheaded Sotlof and posted his murder on YouTube.
Most troubling of all was the absence of an exit strategy. What happens the day after ISIS is defeated. Do we pull up stakes and leave? History tells us that if we pull out another ISIS like terrorist group will takes its place. History also tells us that re-entering the region without an exit strategy is a very, very bad idea. If the president’s strategy includes an exit plan he didn’t bother to share it last night.
It appears to me that the public beheadings of two American journalists has caused a seismic shift in American foreign policy in the Middle East. The suggested plan has all the underpinnings of failed plans that have come before.
I do not feel good about this. Not good at all!