This Is What Obama Is Prepared To Do in Iraq and Syria

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Barack Obama, members of his cabinet and the U.S. military, and a large number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree that Islamic State militants — known by the acronym ISIL and ISIS — are a threat to the United States. The danger that militant organization presents is not fueling any debate at this point. Senators on the Armed Services Committee did press U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, to back up earlier warnings they gave about ISIL. Both reiterated earlier assessments, leaving lawmakers to argue a number of finer points and question Hagel and Dempsey on the points that were noticeably absent from the president’s escalation of the conflict.

In that September 12 speech, Obama ostensibly outlined his plan for eliminating the Islamic State as a threat. In summary, it consists primarily of degrading and destroying. Where the questions lie is in how the United States will effectively degrade and destroy ISIL without using ground troops.

Here’s What Obama Has Said

“ISIL poses a threat to the people of Iraq and Syria and the broader Middle East, including American citizens, personnel, and facilities. If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States. While we have not yet detected specific plotting against our homeland, ISIL leaders have threatened America and our allies,” noted the President in a public address last week, made on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Obama’s words were tempered by a cautious description of the ISIL threat. Yet, others in Washington have been more heated. “ISIL is a savage, blood-thirsty organization carrying out a reign of terror across large swaths of Iraq and Syria. This terrorist organization’s capacity to threaten U.S. national security is growing,” Democratic Robert Menendez Senator of New Jersey, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after Obama’s speech. He believes the president “showed important leadership in laying out an initial plan to confront the threat from ISIL before this barbaric group has the ability to execute a large-scale attack against U.S. interests at home or abroad. As the President accurately stated, ‘If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.’”

That sentiment rings true for Republicans as well, even though the hyper-politicized environment of Washington means that the two parties rarely agree on how to approach policy. On Tuesday morning, House Republicans indicated that they would support Obama’s plan to neutralize the threat posed by ISIL, despite the fact that the President has not given enough details on his strategy. “At this point in time it’s important that we give the President what he’s asking for,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters. But still, “a F-16 is not a strategy … air strikes alone will not accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish. And the President has made clear that he doesn’t want U.S. boots on the ground. Well, somebody’s boots have to be on the ground … I would never tell the enemy what I was willing or unwilling to do.”

Boehner’s comments both shows the degree to which the threat of ISIL has created political unity and highlights the absence of key details of the Obama administration’s plans to eliminate ISIL as a threat. No one — from the President to a selection of congressional lawmakers to political scientists — believes that a simple campaign of airstrikes over Iraq and Syria will stabilize that region of the Middle East. What Obama left out from his speech is the true scope of the conflict.

True, he has touched on the importance of creating a coalition of partners to neutralize the threat. Nearly 40 countries have pledged to help Iraq fight ISIL “by any means necessary,” including France, Australia, the United Kingdom, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Announcing coalition partners on Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry explained on CBS’ Face the Nation that, “It’s not appropriate to start announcing” which nations will participate and what each country will contribute. Some will supply aircrafts, others provide arms; and the Netherlands has pledged to curb the flow of immigrants who may have connections to ISIL, empathize with the militants or provide assistance to the group.

But there are several factors to consider; by shifting the mission from protecting U.S. personnel and facilities, and providing humanitarian assistance, to degrading and eventually destroying the militant group, Obama has upped the stakes and brought the United States into a conflict with no set end date. Now that the president has made the mission one of necessity, one of hunting “down terrorists who threaten our country,” as Obama said Wednesday, the United States cannot pull out if the fighting stagnates, and Americans will be left with the responsibility of stabilizing the region if Iraqi and Syrian troops fail to live up to the President’s expectations.

Tuesday’s hearing drew attention to these problems. Questions asked by senators further revealed that Obama’s strategy is not so simple as he presented Wednesday.

Dempsey: Putting U.S. Boots on the Ground Is a Possibility

At almost every possible opportunity, President Barack Obama has said that U.S. combat forces will not be put on the ground in the Middle East. With particular detail, he explained to Chuck Todd in an early September interview for NBC’s Meet the Press that the United States cannot serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East. “We don’t have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military. And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again.” A sustainable strategy, according to the President, is to put Iraqi and Syrian boots on the ground.

Yet when pressed by lawmakers in Tuesday’s Senate hearing, Army General Martin Dempsey, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top Pentagon official, indicated that he would support sending U.S. advisers to accompany Iraqi troops into battle against militants if airstrikes fail. He also acknowledged that the current level of military engagement in Iraq already constitutes a direct combat mission. “Are pilots dropping bombs in Iraq a direct combat mission and will U.S. forces be prepared to provide search and rescue mission if pilots get shot down and be prepared to put boots on the ground to make that mission be successful?” asked Republican James Inhofe of Oklahoma, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Yes and yes,” Dempsey answered.

His testimony prompted a quick explanatory statement from the Obama administration. White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday that Dempsey was only “referring to a hypothetical scenario in which there might be a future situation in which he might make a tactical recommendation to the President as it relates to the use of ground troops.” After all, “it’s the responsibility of the President’s military advisers to plan and consider all the wide range of contingencies” just as it is “the responsibility of the Commander-in-Chief to set out a clear policy.” As Earnest said, Obama has been explicit in articulating that no ground troops will be deployed in a combat role into Iraq or Syria.

Still, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates agreed with Dempsey’s assessment in an interview with CBS This Morning. In his opinion, “the reality is they’re not going to be able to be successful against ISIS strictly from the air, or strictly depending on the Iraqi forces or the Sunni tribes acting on their own.” Or, in other words, “there will be boots on the ground, if there’s to be any hope of success in the strategy,” Gates said. Of course, an additional 475 troops will be deployed to the country to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces, bringing the current total to 1,600.

Despite the possibility that U.S. ground troops may see action, there is a general consensus among lawmakers that Obama’s strategy is solid — at least in its most basic intentions. As Michael Edward O’Hanlon — a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, specializing in defense and foreign policy — noted in a recent piece for Foreign Affairs, the plan “is a bold one.”

“He has gotten two crucial things right. First, by working with local allies such as the Kurdish peshmerga forces, Obama was able to use limited U.S. airpower to prevent further conquests by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, also known as the Islamic State). Second, by holding off from providing any more extensive help, he was able to push Iraqis to replace Nouri al-Maliki, the divisive incumbent prime minister, with a new one, Haider al-Abadi, and create a national unity government.

Obama didn’t make the latter decision simply because Americans like inclusive, democratic governance. It was because Maliki’s sectarian rule had so divided the country that the Iraqi army nearly dissolved when ISIS forces emerged on the battlefield this past spring. If the army was to be reconstituted so that it could reclaim the Sunni Arab heartland, including cities from Ramadi and Fallujah to Tikrit and Mosul, it needed a leader and a government it could believe in, obey, and die for.”

Haider Al-Abadi — who succeeded Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister of Iraq earlier this month — cannot, on his own, “put things back as they were during the momentarily happy days of the surge and immediate post-surge period,” wrote O’Hanlon. An Iraqi national guard is a key element of a stable Iraq.

O’Hanlon makes a good argument in support of Obama’s strategy. But still, the narrative woven by his analysis depends largely on the entire mission progressing smoothly. The biggest impending crisis is the possibility that newly formed Iraqi government fails to be inclusive. In his recent series of speeches, Obama has made clear that the success of his Iraq policy depends on the country’s leaders building consensus. That dependence means problems. “One of [the dangers] is that the Iraqi government fails to come together in any meaningful way,” Peter Wehner, a former Bush White House official, told the Washington Examiner by email. “It may be that the government comes together but the country does not. That is, the Shia-Sunni split is impossible to repair, at least at this moment. It may be that a new government is formed but the leader himself is weak, or too sectarian, or too incompetent to wage an effective war against ISIS. It may be that the president increases our commitment in Iraq, but (unlike George W. Bush with the surge) not enough. The danger is that having re-engaged in Iraq, we don’t succeed.”

The worry that the country cannot overcome its sectarian divide — a key linchpin in degrading and destroying the strength of ISIL in Iraq and Syria — is important to consider as Congress considers Obama’s request for funding to provide arms to the Free Syrian Army, a moderate rebel group that the administration wants to use as group troops in that country. Generally, Republicans and Democrats support the President, but both parties have their concerns. Republicans want the United States to be more aggressive, while Democrats worry the United States is entering another costly and extended conflict, which will be exacerbated by providing weapons to a group — the Free Syrian Army — whose loyalties are uncertain. Even though these two worries are very different, they both reflect the fact that while Obama’s strategy may be sound at the basic level, he has glossed over important factors that will determine success or failure.

Polls suggest that the American public remains unconvinced of the President’s foreign policy savviness. A New York Times/CBS News poll, released on Wednesday, found that a majority of Americans believe the Republican party can better handle terrorist threats. Only 34 percent of respondents said they approved of the job Obama was doing on foreign policy, a lower approval rating than George W. Bush had in September 2006 when anger of the Iraq war was beginning to grow.

Update, 9/17:  On Wednesday afternoon, the House of Representatives decided — by a narrow 273-156 vote-margin that crossed party lines — to give the U.S. military authority to train and arm Syrian rebels, as Obama requested. Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, called the plan “the best of a long list of bad options.”

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