Just because Obama’s ISIS, counter-terrorism, and Middle East strategy is complex and will not fit on a bumper-sticker or in a soundbite does not mean it is not a good one, and a bit of time trying to understand it will reveal that Republicans criticizing Obama’s strategy are dangerously unfit for office, as their alternatives betray a total lack of understanding of the basic dynamics behind ISIS, terrorism, and the Middle East, with Republican policies certain to make ISIS stronger and expose Americans to even more danger.
The White House
AMMAN — Though a common refrain among Republicans for some time, in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, we are hearing with renewed forcethat Obama cowardly refuses to call out our enemies “by name,” i.e., he avoids calling them Islamic or Muslim extremists terrorists, avoids saying that we are “at war” with “radical Islam.” The rationales Obama’s critics suggest as to why he apparently does this range from a cowardly, timid sense of liberal political correctness all the way to claiming that Obama actually sympathizes with the terrorists and/or is a Muslim himself.
There is something of a legitimate point encased behind the more incredulous claims made by the Republicans: that Obama is avoiding emphasizing the Islamic character of the terrorists and the fact that they are Muslims (some people would like to argue that these extremists committing terrorism are, in fact, not Muslims because of their extreme actions, but the sad truth is that while all faiths have violent extremists that the majority of their co-religionists would like to disown,these extremists do find inspiration for violence from those very faiths and their faiths’ history, traditions, and texts, and must, in fact, be owned by these faithsand their co-religionists whether they want to own them or not). But the Republicans’ point itself is a myopic one because Obama’s decision to avoid emphasizing the Islamic aspects of ISIS is, in fact, based on a very sound overall strategy to deal with the groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, etc.
As usual, the Republicans can’t see the forest for the trees and are way off on their strategy; I don’t even mean this in a pejorative sense, but in a demonstrably-provable-trend sense of the Republican Party being incredibly myopic and short-sighted in its approaches to a whole host of issues, both in terms of foreign affairsand domestic issues (and that could be a whole series of separate articles).
Before we continue in assessing Obama’s approach and choice of language, we must realize that there are other actors on this stage: the terrorists themselves. And we must understand what they want.
Now, some of the readers might at this moment begin to get emotional, and accusations of this writer here being a “terrorist sympathizer” might be forming in some minds. To that I would inquire, “Does a detective ‘sympathize’ with a murder suspect when trying to establish a motive, when trying to investigate and learn about this person?” No rational person would say that this is the case; rather, it is a basis of good police-work to know as much as possible about suspects and their motivations. Well, it is absolutely no different with terrorism.
Understanding the Forces Behind Terrorism’s Success/Appeal
Much has been made of an Atlantic article by Graeme Wood titled “What ISIS really wants,” and it will be addressed shortly; but the mother-of-all articles to come out since 9/11 regarding terrorism would have to be Mark Danner’s “Taking Stock of the Forever War,” written for The New York Times Magazine. In this landmark article, released on fourth anniversary of the attacks and when America was well into its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a sickening truth was made plain for all to see if they had not yet realized it…
Bin Laden and al-Qaeda played the U.S. like a harp.
What is incredible is that, in the very nature of how the U.S. conducted its war in Afghanistan, the U.S. more or less avoided the trap al-Qaeda was hoping to set. But not so with Iraq…
See, bin Laden’s and al-Qaeda’s philosophy and aims are hardly inscrutable; they had, rather, made their aims clear with statements known publicly for many years. For bin Laden, there was the “near enemy:” the non-Islamic regimes ruling over Muslim lands, whether they were democracies, monarchies, or dictatorships. These regimes were supported by the “far enemy:” distant, powerful governments in the West, with the United States leading, that supported the “near enemies” with military, economic, and political aid. In terms of bringing about the ideal system—Islamic governance based on the Golden Age of early Islam—attacking the “near enemy” regimes would be fruitless without first addressing their major Western backers. The plan was simple: draw the West, especially the U.S., into a lengthy ground war in at least one Muslim country, one that would inflict casualties on Western forces, sap Western economic strength in the process, and leave Western publics war-weary enough that when the West eventually withdrew, Western appetite for intervention in the Muslim world would be exhausted or at least vastly reduced and the path for toppling the “near enemy” regimes would be clear Western road blocks cleared or minimized.
In the initial American intervention in Afghanistan, the entire U.S. approach was designed to be minimalist: the Taliban was brought down by air-power and U.S. Special Forces aiding local fighters. It was not until Obama’s presidency thatlarge numbers of U.S. troops were deployed to Afghanistan (and that was largely an attempt undo some of the damage of the Bush Administration’s policies). Thus, the U.S. spent relatively little money there and exposed itself to only minimal damage and risk.
This was not the case with Iraq, and though there was also a bit of a minimalist approach initially adopted there, that quickly devolved into a costly disasterrequiring far more troops over a longer period of time to mitigate the damage. But much damage had still been done: much higher casualties were incurred than American leaders told Americans would be the case; the war cost much more than advertised as well, and also lasted much longer; in late 2008, America elected one Barack Obama as president largely because of his anti-war stance and his pledge to withdraw from Iraq.
As for al-Qaeda, the Iraq War was many ways a dream come true: while it never established the caliphate it dreamed of, its 9/11 attacks did start a chain of events that most certainly did sap American economic strength, did cause many American casualties, and did cause a war weariness in the American psyche that has meant the country is today far more reluctant to intervene in Muslim countries than it was in 1990 during the Gulf War or in 2001 and 2003, when the Afghanistan and Iraq wars started, respectively. After the Iraq invasion of 2003especially, terrorism became far worse; Al-Qaeda itself saw its stature, number of operations, and membership increase dramatically over the course of both wars, and far more people are killed by terrorism today than before the Iraq invasion. By invading Iraq the way Osama bin Laden wanted, we performed exactly the part he laid out for us, and we suffered many of the consequences he hoped we would.
What enabled the U.S. to mitigate what could have been an unmitigated disaster, though, was not U.S policy in supporting a Shiite-dominated Iraqi government: it was the murderous extremism of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi branch (which began calling itself the “Islamic State of Iraq” late in 2006 as part of a coalition with other jihadist groups) against not only Shiites but also many Sunnis that alienated many Iraqis and drove them into the arms of U.S. forces during the “Surge” and the “Sunni Awakening” in 2007, combined with a major adjustment in U.S. counterinsurgency strategy that placed Iraqi civilians first. The local al-Qaeda branch’s actions also created tension with al-Qaeda HQ: Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wanted their Iraqi branch to focus on U.S. forces and to avoid attacking Iraqi civilians. But al-Qaeda in Iraq/Mesopotamia, first led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and later others, focused on creating a civil-war in Iraq by targeting civilians in an overtly sectarian manner, and also by broadly targeting any civilians who did follow their extreme, strict version of Islam (except submissive Christians). Al-Qaeda was crushed by local Sunnis fighting alongside U.S. forces.
The model for defeating terrorists that emerged here would be a key component of what has come to define Obama’s approach: win over locals to your side, and fight side-by-side against terrorism with such support. Partnering with local communities this way became so effective that towards the end of the “Surge” forward, the newly minted “Islamic State of Iraq was” rarely more than a nuisance for Iraq until the year 2013, over a year after the U.S. had fully withdrawn from Iraq. Its resurgence was due mainly to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s extremely sectarian policies that would drive the same communities that had aided in the fight against al-Qaeda/the Islamic State of Iraq in 2007 into open rebellion against Maliki and Iraqi’s government at the end of 2013. Under those conditions, the formerly titled Islamic State of Iraq, now calling itself ISIS (an acronym meaning Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham/Levant, encompassing also Syria, Lebanon, and other areas) and now formally broken away from al-Qaeda, came into Iraq and entered an alliance of convenience with many Iraqi Sunnis against Maliki’s oppressive Shiite government.
This put the Obama Administration into a quandary: it have moved to fulfill Obama’s campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, and if Obama was going to be sucked back into conflict in Iraq, he and his administration were going to be damn sure to be careful and that the conditions under which it would reenter conflict in Iraq would make sense for its overall goals for the region. The core of this strategy was moving away from the U.S. shouldering the majority of initiative, burden, and responsibility for fights against regional extremism and also away from larger invasions, wars, and occupations like those that were initiated and (mis)prosecuted during the (W.) Bush Administration, all while moving towards America being a friend, supporter and ally of the local and non-oppressive forces in the region fighting extremism.
When people complain about Obama “not having a strategy” for the Middle East, they clearly seem to have missed this obvious strategy here, as exemplified by virtually all of the Administration’s actions and inactions in the region for some time. This strategy is quite sound, as 1.) it avoids making the U.S. the main target as would happen when having its forces lead, 2.) it allows the fight to be properly framed primarily as a local vs. extremists fight, rather than a U.S./West vs. Muslims conflict, 3.) it helps to avoid generating more extremists by assisting with less-oppressive local partners rather unconditionally supporting more oppressive regimes.
This last point is particularly important in light of the Arab Spring, but also in general; many of those behind terrorist attacks against Americans—including most of the 9/11 hijackers—are from countries with oppressive governments that are supported by the United States; hence, the “far enemy” supporting the “near enemy” rhetoric. Even without completely ending it relationships with oppressive regimes—an ideal if impractical approach—the Obama Administration has been careful to distance itself from such regimes in the Middle East, at the very least avoiding the warm embrace of past administrations. Egypt is a good example of this, and so is Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, but perhaps the best example is Iraq…
When Maliki’s Iraqi government asked for heavy U.S. assistance in the face of ISIS’s onslaught last summer, Obama knew that it was Malik’s own oppressive, heavy-handed policies targeting Sunnis that had largely created the crisis. If Obama had unquestioningly come to the aid of Maliki and his government in Iraq when it was seen as brutally oppressing Iraqi Sunnis, Obama’s assistance would have just played into ISIS’s strategy of framing the conflict as the U.S. and Iraqi governments merely being forces of oppression against Sunnis. Rather, Obama knew it was crucial to U.S. interests and strategy not be seen as aiding in Maliki’s oppression, and told Maliki that he would need to change his ways, or, failing that, told the Iraqis they would need to find a new leader worthy of American support if such support was to be forthcoming; Maliki did not swerve his course under heavy U.S. pressure, but Iraq’s political establishment did and forced Maliki out for a new, far less divisively sectarian Dr. Haider al-Abadi. As I have written before, Obama’s withholding of support for Maliki’s oppressive government to bring about major internal Iraqi changes was a consummate diplomatic victory that was a win for America, Iraq, and the region. If Obama had come to Maliki’s aid without demanding the Iraqi government treat Sunnis better, that would have been a gift to ISIS and further inflamed sectarian tensions and added to ISIS’s legitimacy and support among disaffected Sunnis. Basically, Obama has signaled an end to doing dictators’ dirty work for them, and leaders that go past a certain point of heavy-handedness will find America more hesitant to help them than before.
Going back to the earlier analogy of a detective investigating a murder suspect: as I have noted before, violent crime and terrorism are actually similar problems with similar solutions; in the short term, force and deterrence is important, but in the longer run, “soft power” approaches that involve community and international development emphasizing human rights are even more important. Obama is mocked for even suggesting this, but those doing the mocking only reveal their own myopia and disqualification from having anything to do with U.S. counterterrorism policy.
This leads up to the central aspects of both Obama’s Middle Eastern strategy andhis ISIS/counterterrorism strategy, with Iraq as a springboard: gone are the days when Middle Eastern regimes would avoid tough political compromises with minority or disaffected ethnic, religious, and political groups, waiting for the U.S. to bail them out with military aid and sometimes military action that would simply beat these groups into destruction or submission; from Lebanon to Israel and Palestine, to Iraq and Yemen, to Syria and Egypt, many of the recent and also past conflicts revolve around a government oppressing various groups and using force, rather than politics, to achieve a “solution.”
With Obama more than any other president, American aid the degree of itdepends on whether regimes use politics over force. Obama distanced himself from Maliki, and has also distanced himself from Egypt’s oppressive Sisi; though Syria’s Assad would be a good ally against ISIS, America working with Assad has been ruled out based on his morphing into a mass murderer. At east rhetorically, Obama has even clashed repeatedly with close ally Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over his heavy-handedness with the Palestinians. The clear reality is that these regimes and others were able to use (the expectations of) American support and/or American military action to continue oppression carte blanche.
Now to Graeme Wood’s important article about ISIS: If bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s main aims was a long struggle to drive out western support for non-Islamic regimes with the hope of establishing a caliphate in the distant future—emphasizing the here-and-now-struggle over the caliphate—then ISIS’s focus is different: its people want to be the barrier carriers and enforcers of what to them is the only acceptable version of Islam (one based closely on Koranic text and theology), purifying the world with the blood of the non-compliers (ISIS’s expanded definition of takfir apostates) and to use this status to build both a following and a caliphate here and now, with the eventual, more distant goal of fulfilling apocalyptic prophecies. Their power, then, begins with them claiming the mantle of Islam, the “true” Islam that will stand up to the West.
Thus, even if it does not find itself supported by a majority of Muslims, it is also undeniably Islamic; as noted earlier, most religious people are not extremists, but all religions have their extremists and religion in general tends to intensify and barbarize conflict. More than anything else, ISIS wants and needs to be associated with Islam.
Which bring us to the other main aspect of Obama’s Middle-Easter and ISIS strategies: when defining and speaking about groups like ISIS, the smart play is tode-emphasize their Islamic nature. Conflicts are not won with each side presenting objective descriptions of each other and each other’s characteristics and motivations; they are won with convincing and resounding narratives that almost never tell the whole story. Propaganda, or information war, is often crucial to victory, and this has been true for thousands of years. That does not mean that it is often best or advisable to engage in fantastical, blatant distortion, but in the case of ISIS, on the part of the West, it must mean to go out of the way to do as much to separate ISIS from Islam as possible in public statements and speeches.
Obama did not win the presidency by being a stupid man, and, in general, is not stupid, but very shrewd, even for all his flaws. Of course he knows that ISIS is Islamic and his unwillingness to associate ISIS with Islam is not out of any sense of political correctness, timidity, or cowardice: rather, it is a very important and necessary part of a sound strategy to counter and eventually defeat ISIS. By going out of its way to not associates radical extremist Islamic jihadist terrorists with Islam, the Obama Administration has been able to hurt terrorists’ narratives all over the world; bin Laden himself wrote of this (and the arena of narratives is one of the crucial battlefields of this war). One of our most important allies in this conflict, King Adbullah of Jordan (a mainly Muslim country in case you did not know), is completely behind this strategy.
ISIS’s apocalyptic vision called for a great final battle in northern Syria between itself and a great (Western?) army of “Rome,” the final showdown between faithful, true Muslims and the kuffar infidels before the end times. The more some prominent Republicans constantly associate ISIS and terrorists publicly with Islam, the more they “shamefully…blur the line between [normal] Muslims and Islamic extremists,” the more they question and apply scrutiny to all of Islam and all Muslims, the more they call for massive U.S.-led military (ground) operations against ISIS, the more this gives ISIS’s murderous extremists exactlywhat they want, the better they can sell their narrative, the more recruits they will find, the more successful they will be.
We saw this happen for al-Qaeda when we invaded Iraq, the aftermath of which saw a swelling of al-Qaeda’s rosters and of terrorism worldwide. We seem to be particularly amnesic with regards to history, and, especially of late, with counterinsurgency and picking quality allies. In the Vietnam War, America backed a regime unworthy of its professed values or the Vietnamese people, one that had no respect for human rights, and the population turned against America and the South Vietnamese government. Another example is American support for Iran’s Shah, and America is still paying the price for that support. Now,Republicans are calling for more robust support for Egypt’s oppressive PresidentAbdel Fattah al-Sisi against Islamist insurgents there, including an ISIS affiliate. They seem blithely unaware that such support might actually empower the insurgents fighting against Sisi’s regime. In fact, if the U.S. were to go back to robustly aiding dictators who show no regard for human rights, it will prove ISIS’s propaganda true: that America and the West are teaming up with non-Islamic oppressors, who together are working against the masses of regular Muslims.
And, crucially, more people will line up to fight us than if we were to be more careful about who we strongly supported, to whom we gave weaker support to, and who we did not support. Iraq’s recent history proves this: the Sunnis in Western Iraq fought with American forces to defeat al-Qaeda in 2007; in 2014 they fought with ISIS against a Shiite government in Baghdad, led by Maliki, that shared no power, offered no compromise, gave no quarter to Sunnis, all while using the security forces of the state to promulgate violence against Sunni leaders and villages. Iraq’s Sunnis were willing to fight against extremists Sunni Islamic terrorists when they believed they would get a fair shake in the Iraqi political system; when they instead were forcefully and deliberately marginalized, many of them allied with the same terrorists they had recently fought.
Instead of accommodating aggrieved groups and working out long-term compromise, these regimes will just use American support to get away with literal murder, fueling even more instability and conflict in the future. This was a major lesson of both 9/11 and the Arab Spring, but the myopia of the Republicans leaves no room to even acknowledge this. Instead, Obama seeks to force these regimes to engage in political compromise—the only way to defuse the sectarian tensions raging across the Middle East today—by using American aid as leverage. By pushing these regimes to become something that locals will see as governments worth fighting for, there will emerge local government forces of Muslims with enough motivation and legitimacy (in addition to American and Western support) that can stand up to ISIS and deprive ISIS of the narrative and territory on which it feeds and survives. Obama correctly understands than an organization like ISIS cannot be defeated by America: it must be defeated by the Muslims and governments in ISIS’s sphere of operations, and America can be there to help, butit must be the locals who lead. A big part of any success will be the degree to which ISIS becomes divorced from Islam in the minds of the region’s Muslims. The foolish Republicans and others who do not understand how important this aspect is to the regional dynamics and ISIS’s ability to both absorb and project power only empower ISIS in the long run.
The above describes Obama’s broader strategy for dealing with ISIS, counterterrorism, and the Middle East. It is a complex, nuanced strategy for a complex, nuanced problem. To be fair, the Obama Administration has hardly been perfect in its messaging of its complex strategy and how its components fit together. Yet the strategy is also hardly rocket science, and even a modest understanding of Middle Eastern dynamics reveals that it is not only the best strategy, but the only one that yields a good chance of long-term success andshort-term progress against terrorist extremists like ISIS. Particularly troubling is the dominant Republican view, that if a strategy cannot fit into a bumper sticker (Trump’s “bomb the shit out of” ISIS) that means it is not (and that there is no) strategy; also, their idea that the solution to complex foreign policy problems should be modeled on John Wayne westerns. Among many other reasons, these are reminders why the Republican Party and their leading candidates are not fit for high office, let along prosecuting a global fight against ISIS and its ill-intentioned brethren.