As the air war against ISIS heated up this week many think tanks analyzed the Obama strategy and offered forth theirs. In most cases, they thought the White House plan was too halfhearted and needed more aggressive moves in order to defeat ISIS.
The Monitor Analysis looks at the failings of the Obama strategy and looks at some of the political reasons for his lukewarm moves. We note that his Democratic base is less concerned with the war against ISIS than the Republicans and independents, which will have the biggest say in who wins the elections in November. This places Obama on the horns of a dilemma – satisfy his political base or win the mid term election in November.
We also look at a recent Reuters’ poll that showed a large number of Americans favoring their state’s secession from the United States. We look at the poll in depth, to see why there is such considerable political unrest and what it means in the long run.
Think Tanks Activity Summary
The CSIS argues that the American strategy against ISIS doesn’t require a major investment in “boots on the ground.” They note, “The situation is radically different when it comes to another kind of U.S. ground presence. Iraqis have already shown that they can fight. They have done all too good a job of fighting each other since the rounds of Arab-Kurdish fighting that began in the early 1970s, and the low-level Arab Sunni vs. Arab Shi’ite fighting that began during the Iran-Iraq War and went on through the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. They fought the Middle East’s bloodiest modern war against Iran from 1980-1988, and decisively defeated Iran in 1988… Iraq still has effective combat units in spite of Maliki, but it is going to need forward Special Forces, ranger-type troops, and other teams of experts to help coordinate, train, and link ground and air power. These need to be embedded at the combat unit level, they need to be armed, they need to be capable of self-defense, and they need to be prepared to take casualties and have medical aid.”
The Carnegie Endowment argues that a truce between Assad and some Syrian rebel groups is the key to defeating ISIS. In comparing the Obama strategy to this suggestion, they note, “A truce in Syria would be in keeping with the approach to degrading and destroying the Islamic State that U.S. President Barack Obama outlined on September 10. Indeed, a truce would allow a distinct improvement on what has been viewed by many as better than nothing, but less than a strategy. An obvious drawback to Obama’s approach is that it relegates dealing with the conflict in Syria between the Assad regime and the rebels to a later stage, and offers no detail on what might be done there in the meantime. As critics have pointed out, this may severely limit the impact of the campaign against the Islamic State and allow the militants to regroup and rebound.
The Heritage Foundation looks at establishing a framework for authorizing the use of force against ISIS. However, they note, “An authorization for use of military force is not a substitute for a comprehensive strategy to confront and defeat an enemy, whether the enemy is a state actor (i.e., a country) or a non-state actor, such as a terrorist organization. Only the President, pursuant to Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, is commander in chief of the armed forces. He is legally responsible “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” as well as the American people, from all enemies, foreign and domestic. It is the President who, utilizing the vast resources of the executive branch, must assess any threats to our national security and, if they exist, must make the case to the American people and Congress as to how our vital interests are jeopardized by the threat. Then it is the President who must lead by developing a comprehensive, intelligent strategy to confront and defeat the enemy.”
The Washington Institute looks at strategies to defeat ISIS at a conference on September 22. Panelist James Jeffrey says, the U.S. goal of “degrading and destroying” ISIS requires some clarification. To destroy ISIS would mean to eliminate the group entirely, demonstrating U.S. resolve and reassuring allies of America’s commitment to regional security. Yet this goal is nearly impossible because ISIS is a transnational ideological movement rooted in a specific interpretation of Islam, and it exploits the weak nation-state system in the Middle East through sectarian conflict. Therefore, efforts to destroy it will look more like defeat than destruction.
The Brookings Institution sees much to like in Obama’s ISIS strategy. They note, “The administration’s new approach has resulted in several important developments. Nouri al-Maliki was forced to step down as prime minister of Iraq. That country has a new, more inclusive government that’s committed both to fighting ISIS and accommodating the demands of its alienated Sunni community. Humanitarian tragedies have been averted at Mount Sinjar and Amerli. ISIS has been driven back from Mosul Dam and the approaches to Erbil. And many of the states of the region have signed on to the U.S.-led effort. These are merely first steps in the right direction, but that in itself is an important achievement. When Mosul fell, the Middle East was plummeting into chaos. Today, at least in some key areas, it has started to pull out of that nosedive—even if it has not yet started to gain altitude. But there is one piece of the strategy that the Obama administration has not articulated and does not yet seem to be preparing for. We must also start gearing up for nation-building, particularly in Syria.”
The American Enterprise Institute looks at Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who they maintain, has stood firmly in Iran’s political center, closely bound to Khamenei. Concerning American relations with Iran, they conclude, “Whatever the resolution of talks this fall, and however the fight against the Islamic State evolves, Rouhani’s position with Khamenei will almost certainly remain secure as the president navigates critical economic reforms – with or without sanctions relief – and helps manage regional crises. Washington and other world powers should have no illusions. Rouhani is ultimately a creature of this regime, and as such, his domestic polices and diplomatic outreach will inevitably aim to preserve the Islamic republic rather than to change it from within.”
The Institute for the Study of War looks at a strategy to defeat ISIS. They note, “The core challenge facing the U.S. in Iraq and Syria is the problem of enabling the Sunni Arab community stretching from Baghdad to Damascus and Turkey to Jordan to defeat al-Qaeda affiliates and splinters, while these extreme groups deliberately concentrate in Sunni majority areas. Persuading those communities to rejoin reformed states in Iraq and Syria after long seasons of internal strife will be daunting. But their participation in state security solutions will be essential to keep al-Qaeda from returning. Many of these populations, especially Syrians, may be losing confidence in such a post-war vision.”
The Wilson Center looks at Afghanistan’s future in light of the new government. In considering the future of the unity government, they warn, “In a country as divided as Afghanistan, a rift of any kind could doom a unity government to a life that is—as Thomas Hobbes might put it—nasty, brutish, and short. Here’s hoping that Afghanistan’s new leadership avoids such a fate.”
Obama’s War on Terrorism Failing in Middle East and at Home
Despite a major emphasis on fighting ISIS in the last couple of weeks, there is little to show for it. Surgical air strikes have had a limited impact on the military capability of ISIS. They have killed Abu Yousef al-Turki, a key al-Nusra Front leader. And, there are also reports that airstrikes in northern Syria killed Muhsin al-Fadhl, the leader of the Khorasan Group, before his group of Islamist militants were able to carry out bomb attacks on the US and Europe.
However, the coalition that Obama called for has largely failed to emerge on the battlefield and most military action is American.
Just as worse for Obama is the political impact at home. Although traditionally, foreign conflicts help a leader’s approval numbers, Obama has seen his approval ratings fall even more as members of the Obama coalition have lost faith in him.
Meantime, the strikes carried out to immense fanfare by the White House appear to be little more than pinpricks compared to previous American action by either of the Bush presidents or Clinton. In fact, the 1998 “Operation Desert Fox” cruise missile attacks that were launched by President Clinton were criticized as “mere pinpricks,” but were much larger than this week’s attacks.
Operationally the strikes were indicative of the unfocused nature of Obama’s strategy. In additional to attacking the ISIS leadership, other strikes went after elements of al-Nusra, the formal al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria, and members of the Khorasan Group, a group of senior al Qaeda leaders and bomb experts tasked by al Qaeda leadership to find new ways to penetrate Western security.
All these terrorist targets were of value, but the fact that the US had to target three different types of targets reflects the diffuse and dispersed nature of the enemy and the price of failed policy and covert action in Syria.
According to some U.S military commentators on U.S media, another problem with the strategy of the strikes is that Obama has made the classic military mistake of dividing his forces in the face of a numerically superior force. By attacking in three directions at once with a relatively small force, he guaranteed a long campaign, a smaller political and tactical impact for each strike, and a smaller chance of ultimate victory.
The lessened military impact of the strikes was magnified by the limited breadth of the coalition against ISIS. When announcing the strikes, Obama stressed that the “broad coalition” against ISIL “makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone.” But based upon public information, the coalition is very narrow and small. France has carried out symbolic air strikes until now, but Britain has been surprisingly reticent although may move in the direction of participating. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Qatar “participated” militarily, while Bahrain, host to the U.S. Navy’s regional headquarters, “supported” operations. Obviously the Kurds, although not a nation, were supportive of the strikes, especially those that impact ISIS military operations near Kurdistan.
Although portrayed as gratifying by Obama administration, these Middle Eastern nations are all moderate Sunni states, longtime allies of the US, and the most at risk from ISIS expansion. However, of concern was the lack of support from Turkey. Turkey, which has the second largest military in NATO after the US, has been reluctant to join the fight against ISIS, which conspicuously received 49 Turkish hostages last weekend.
Another concern is ISIS’s resolve to strike back against nations that carry out air strikes against it. Just half an hour after Obama spoke at the UN against ISIS, ISIS-linked militants in Algeria beheaded a French hostage captured the weekend before. The group had threatened to kill him if France did not stop bombing targets in Iraq.
Despite the killing and threat, French President Francois Hollande condemned the killing as a “cruel and cowardly” act. He said that French air strikes which began last week would continue.
Meanwhile, the halfhearted attack on ISIS was only received with lukewarm support from the so called “moderate Syrian rebels”. “We are glad today to see the international community joining our fight against ISIL and extremism,” said Syrian Opposition Coalition President Hadi al-Bahra, using one of the acronyms for the Islamic State. But he said the longtime U.S. refusal to provide rebels with antiaircraft and other heavy weaponry is hampering the effort.
American Foreign Policy or Politics?
While Obama insists that he is focused on ISIS and other terrorist threats, even in his UN speech, he diverged from the unrest in the world to address global warming. Obama told the UN, “America is pursuing ambitious reductions in our carbon emissions, and we have increased our investments in clean energy. We will do our part, and help developing nations to do theirs. But we can only succeed in combating climate change if we are joined in this effort by every major power. That’s how we can protect this planet for our children and grandchildren.”
The wavering nature of Obama’s approach to defeating ISIS and continued focus on global warming once again brings up the question of if Obama is more concerned about ISIS or winning elections. A Pew Research Center/USA Today survey conducted in August showed that Obama’s political base has very different views of the terrorist threat than independents (who decide elections in the US) and Republicans.
Obama’s Democrats consider global climate change a greater threat to the United States than either Al Qaeda (67%), or ISIS (65%). By contrast, 80 percent of Republicans cited Al Qaeda as the principal threat facing the nation, followed by 78 percent citing ISIS, and only 25 percent expressing concern about global climate change. Among Independents, Al Qaeda led the way at 69 percent, followed by ISIS at 63 percent, and global climate change bringing up the rear at 44 percent.
This conundrum can be seen in the plummeting approval numbers for Obama. On September 11th, the day after his speech announcing the more aggressive strategy against ISIS, 36.6% of American either strongly or somewhat approved of Obama. By the beginning of this week, that number had dropped to 31.6%.
Much of that drop came from Democrats, who previously had given him more support. On September 11th, Democrats who strongly and slightly approved of him was at 67.4%. Earlier this week, it had dropped down to 59.5%. And, although Blacks are his strongest ethnic support group, his support dropped 5 points during the same time from 73% to 68%.
This reflects the problem Obama is facing in the war against terrorism and ISIS. In order to continue to remain effective as president and maintain some hopes for Democrats to hold Senate and Congressional seats in November, he must focus on fighting ISIS. However, much of his political base in uninterested in the war on terror and is focused on subjects like global warming.
In his approach to the War in Syria and Iraq, He is attempting to do enough to retain some support for his actions by Republicans and independents. Yet, he doesn’t want to go so far as to alienate his Democratic base. Unfortunately, the political results of this halfhearted political strategy will probably be as unsuccessful as his entire foreign policy.
A Framework for an Authorization for Use of Military Force Against ISIS
By Charles “Cully” Stimson
September 24, 2014
For over a decade, the United States has been in armed conflict with Islamist terrorists. In a variety of organizations and forms, this agile and adaptive enemy continues to wage war against the interests of both the U.S. and its allies. ISIS poses a “direct and significant threat to us” and must be defeated using all necessary means. The American people support military action against ISIS, and the Administration accordingly must develop a comprehensive, overarching strategy to confront and ultimately defeat this enemy. Working with our partners and allies and the countries in the region that are most affected by ISIS, the United States must do what it traditionally has done: lead.
Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic State: The “Boots on the Ground” Fallacy
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
September 19, 2014
There are times the United States does not need an enemy in going to war. It poses enough of a threat to itself without any foreign help. The current debate over ground troops in Iraq and Syria threatens to be yet another case in point, compounding the American threats to America that have done so much damage in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the earlier fighting in Iraq. The Islamic State is Not the Center of Gravity, and the Politics of Iraqi Unity are More Critical Than the Fighting.
Iran’s president is still the Ayatollah’s man
By J. Matthew McInnis
American Enterprise Institute
September 25, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani today takes the podium at the U.N. General Assembly. With Rouhani two years into his presidential term, many in the West hold out hope he will push Iran toward modernization domestically and assume a less confrontational approach abroad. Rouhani is seen as savvy and moderate, steering through a mass of treacherous hardliners in Tehran and an entrenched Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. But this is the wrong way to understand Rouhani – it likely reflects wishful thinking on our part. In the face of momentous crises and policy challenges over the past year, the president has stood firmly in Iran’s political center, closely bound to Khamenei. This should not be surprising. After the tumultuous 2009 election and the internal political strife that characterized the latter years of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, Khamenei was probably pleased to see one of his confidantes ascend to the presidency. Indeed Rouhani, long a regime insider, was intimately involved in the country’s nuclear program, and he helped carry out a harsh crackdown on major student protests in 1999.
To Confront the Islamic State, Seek a Truce in Syria
By Yezid Sayigh
September 18, 2014
As a core coalition led by the United States gears up to confront the militant Islamic State with action in Iraq, there is a rare opportunity to engineer a truce in Syria. Both the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the more moderate armed rebels arrayed against it are stretched thin, bleeding badly, and in an increasingly vulnerable position. They remain as far as ever from negotiating a political solution to the conflict, but the timing is opportune. Each has self-serving reasons to suspend military operations to confront the looming jihadist threat from the east. The two sides would unilaterally observe truces that are separate but implemented in parallel. This approach would not require a formal diplomatic agreement, just robust endorsement and timely coordination by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—the government’s and the opposition’s external backers that are most engaged in Iraq and warily converging on the shared goal of destroying the Islamic State.
A Strategy to Defeat The Islamic State
By Kimberly Kagan, Frederick W. Kagan, and Jessica D. Lewis
Institute for the Study of War
The Islamic State poses a grave danger to the United States and its allies in the Middle East and around the world. Reports that it is not currently planning an attack against the American homeland are little comfort. Its location, the resources it controls, the skill and determination of its leaders and fighters, and its demonstrated lethality distinguish it from other al-Qaeda-like groups. Its ability to offer safe-haven and support to terrorists planning attacks against us is beyond any terrorist threat we have ever seen. The thousands of American and European citizens who are fighting alongside the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria constitute an unprecedented threat to our security regardless of whether those groups intend to attack us. The Islamic State is a clear and present danger to the security of the United States. It must be defeated.
Four Questions for Afghanistan’s Future
By Michael Kugelman
September 23, 2014
Five months after Afghans voted in national elections, they finally have a new government—albeit not the kind they had in mind. In effect, two bitter rivals in a bitterly divided nation will be sharing power under an arrangement that represents not the will of the Afghan people but a solution imposed by the international community. The two top presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, have pledged to form a national unity government in which Mr. Ghani, the election winner, will be president and Mr. Abdullah, the runner-up, will appoint a chief executive officer (though he may decline this post himself and opt for another position).
Defeating ISIS: From Strategy to Implementation
By Jean-Pierre Filiu, James F. Jeffrey, and Michael Eisenstadt
September 23, 2014
On September 22, 2014, Jean-Pierre Filiu, James Jeffrey, and Michael Eisenstadt addressed a Policy Forum at The Washington Institute. Filiu is a professor of Middle East studies at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Jeffrey is the Institute’s Philp Solondz Distinguished Visiting Fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey. Eisenstadt directs the Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program. The following is a rapporteur’s summary of their remarks.
We Need to Begin Nation-Building in Syria Right Now If we want to avoid the mistakes we made in Iraq
By Kenneth M. Pollack
September 24, 2014
Winston Churchill once famously said that, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all of the alternatives.” He could have been speaking of the Obama administration’s Middle East policy. For six years I have criticized the administration’s policies toward Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East (mostly excepting its Iran policy). But since the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in June, at least where Iraq and Syria are concerned, I can find little to criticize and much to praise. The administration has reversed course in both countries, shifting from stubborn disengagement to smart leadership. Since the stunning ISIS offensive in Iraq in June, Washington’s moves have been uncharacteristically deft: promising greater military support to Iraq as leverage to effect political change there; providing air support and weapons to the Kurds to halt the ISIS offensive; launching a sustained air campaign against ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria; and deploying advisors and weapons to Iraq, to name a few.
Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor
C: 202 536 8984 C: 301 509 4144