Talking to NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said the United States would not reevaluate the strategy to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL).
“Strategy’s very clear,” she went on. “We’ll do what we can from the air. We will support the Iraqi security forces, the Kurds, and ultimately over time, the moderate opposition in Syria to be able to control territory and take the fight to ISIL. We’ll do our part from the air and in many other respects in terms of building up the capacity of the Iraqis and the Syrian opposition, the moderates.”
As for the specific elements of this “strategy,” I’ve dealt with them in some detail a month ago and en general last week. Let us summarize: The Iraqi security forces are in no better shape now than they were last June, when they spectacularly disintegrated in Mosul and Tikrit, and they will not be capable of conducting serious anti-IS operations in the foreseeable future. If a decade of American training, arming and equipping them, at an exorbitant cost to U.S. taxpayers, has not done the trick so far, there is absolutely no reason to believe that they will undergo a spectacular transformation in the years to come – whatever the name of the present or future Iraqi prime minister. The Kurds are on the verge of losing Kobani, and they are embittered over Turkey’s inaction and insufficient U.S. support. Their only goal, reasonably enough, is to hold on to what they control. They will never conduct complex anti-IS operations outside their ethnic areas, even if they were theoretically able to do so. The “Syrian moderates” do not exist. Advanced weapons systems delivered to them so far – notably guided anti-tank missiles – have been passed to the IS in pristine condition. That will not change.
The alarming aspect of Ms. Rice’s performance is her evident inability to distinguish between a campaign’s objective (“degrade and destroy”) and the strategy developed to attain those objectives. The definition approved by the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff is “the art and science of employing the armed forces of a nation to secure the objectives of a national policy by the application of force, or the threat of force.” Since Ms. Rice, President Obama and everyone else in his team are adamant that there will be “no U.S. boots on the ground,” this definition is applicable in a very limited sense. American air power alone is to be deployed, we are told, with someone else doing the fighting on the ground. That someone does not exist; therefore there is no strategy. Simple, and tragic in view of the potential for mission creep. Sen. John McCain et al will demand, a year from now, those very boots “to get the job done.” Hillary Clinton, or her Republican opponent, will act accordingly in 2017.
The unpleasant truth is this: Even if Obama, Rice & Co. were successful in their campaign to “degrade and destroy” the IS after ten, twenty or thirty years (Panetta) – I’d say the odds are 1000:1 – they would face another IS-like “existential threat to U.S. interests” the next day, or week, or month, somewhere else in the region. Continuing on this path is madness, literally: expectation of different outcomes from already tested and failed policies. Disengagement is the only sane strategy. The Muslim world is in crisis. Let the Muslims deal with that crisis on their own. America can do no good in that world-historical drama, to them or to herself.
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