President Obama has started describing his new strategy to confront the Islamic State, and despite it being a mishmash of wishful thinking and perpetual militarism, the focus of the Washington elites in the press and elsewhere has been almost entirely on the optics: Is he overcoming the perception that he wasn’t doing enough? What will the political reaction be?
The question we should be asking, as I noted on Friday, is: Why the hell does he think it has any chance of working?
Granted Obama isn’t talking about launching another all-out invasion. “You… cannot, over the long term or even the medium term, deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East,” he said in an interview for NBC’s “Meet the Press” broadcast on Sunday. “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.”
But he is apparently planning on re-upping the country for another 3-year hitch in the endless war he used to talk about wrapping up.
Obama will talk about his plans in a speech to the nation on Wednesday, one day shy of the 13th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He gave a preview on Friday, during a press conference in Wales, and then again in the NBC interview.
His plan calls for stepped-up airstrikes, inevitably leading to civilian casualties; for the kind of Middle-Eastern diplomatic needle-threading that has consistently eluded him in the past; for a political miracle in Iraq; and, despite all the precedent to the contrary, for American-trained indigenous military forces that actually fight.
Despite all the cause for skepticism, however, the press coverage of his remarks was largely stenographic — with the aforementioned overlay of politics and optics.
It was also understated. As my colleague Glenn Greenwald tweeted:
Patrick O’Connor, Dion Nissenbaum and Carol E. Lee wrote in the Wall Street Journal about Obama’s “appeal for support to a divided Congress and a doubtful American public”:
Facing growing pressure from lawmakers to articulate a strategy for a military campaign he began a month ago, the president plans for the first time to offer details about his strategy.
The White House has come under repeated fire from Republicans and Democrats alike for sending mixed signals about Mr. Obama’s goals in confronting Islamic militants.
David Nakamura wrote in The Washington Post:
The interview marked the start of a concerted effort by the White House this week to more clearly enunciate the administration’s strategy to deal with the Islamic State…. Obama was criticized by members of Congress for saying two weeks ago that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for increased action.
One notable exception to the stenography and conventional wisdom was a story filed Friday evening by Hannah Allam and Jonathan S. Landay of the McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau. They called it like this:
The U.S.-led international strategy to combat the Islamic State that President Barack Obama sketched out Friday is likely to require years of thorny diplomacy and deeper U.S. military involvement in conflicts that he’s struggled to avoid…
Even limited success for this new effort, analysts say, hinges on an unenviable to-do list for the Obama administration: foster cozier relations with Iran, gamble on the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels, strong-arm Iraq’s Shiite Muslim leaders into power-sharing with the Sunni Muslim minority, and persuade Sunni-ruled nations in the Persian Gulf region not to undermine the whole effort by striking out on their own.
Allam and Landay describe all sorts of other challenges, including the fact that the Saudis and their pals may still see the Islamic State — the supremely brutal Sunni extremists also known as ISIS and ISIL — as a potential Sunni asset in the eternal proxy war between Sunnis and Shiiites. Indeed, the most likely option for a relaxation of those hostilities, they wrote, could be a de facto swap of sorts, where previously Sunni-run Iraq formally joins the Shiite team, and currently-Shiite-dominated Syria signs up with the Sunnis.
What could possibly go wrong with that?
Monday’s New York Times front-pager, by Eric Schmitt, Michael R. Gordon and Helene Cooper, also put the plan in some actual policy context:
The next phase, which would begin sometime after Iraq forms a more inclusive government, scheduled this week, is expected to involve an intensified effort to train, advise or equip the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and possibly members of Sunni tribes.
The final, toughest and most politically controversial phase of the operation — destroying the terrorist army in its sanctuary inside Syria — might not be completed until the next administration. Indeed, some Pentagon planners envision a military campaign lasting at least 36 months.
The Times story noted that, for better or worse, “The military campaign Mr. Obama is preparing has no obvious precedent.”
And it quoted a Sunni tribal leader who illustrated the challenge of counting on people who don’t trust you. “In the past, we fought against Al Qaeda and we cleaned the area of them,” the sheikh told the Times. “But the Americans gave control of Iraq to [Shiite former prime minister Nouri al-] Maliki, who started to arrest, kill, and exile most of the tribal commanders who led the fight against Al Qaeda.”
Even Obama’s first step is in doubt. Loveday Morris, Craig Whitlock and Greg Jaffe report for the Washington Post that Iraq’s political crisis has suddenly deepened “as Kurds withdrew from negotiations on a new government.” That means Iraq’s prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, may not be able to form a government before a deadline expires on Wednesday.
Looking for wisdom? Go take a look (or another look) at the questions Paul R. Pillar, formerly the CIA’s top Middle East analyst, suggested for my Friday article. Among them:
Have we considered whether part of the group’s purpose is to provoke more U.S. intervention, and therefore show themselves as the group standing up to the U.S.? Would we not indeed be playing into their hands by doing so?
Looking for lunacy? Marc Thiessen — torture apologist, Bush lackey and Washington Post op-ed columnist (I apologize for the redundancy) — proclaimed that George W. Bush deserves to tell Obama “I told you so.” Per Thiessen:
In Iraq, we are seeing what happens when the United States cuts and runs and allows evil to run rampant. The results were entirely predictable.
Indeed, they were predicted — by George W. Bush.
Sorry, friend. They were predicted a long time before that, by the few people brave enough to speak truth to power — after Bush invaded Iraq under false pretenses, and with no idea what to do then.
Some Final Thoughts
In his interview with Obama, NBC’s Chuck Todd predictably asked about the optics — specifically, about when Obama went to play golf right after making a statement about the beheading of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State.
“I should’ve anticipated the optics,” Obama said. “[P]art of this job is also the theatre of it. A part of it is, you know, how are you, how, how are you, well, it’s not something that– that always comes naturally to me. But it matters. And I’m mindful of that.”
Similarly focusing on optics, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote Monday about how “Obama’s halting cool at the lectern now reads too often as weakness, and when he protests against the charges of weakness he can seem just tired.”
But Remnick also noted that despite the mockery it has elicited, Obama’s basic foreign policy rule — “Don’t do stupid stuff” — really isn’t a bad one. Remnick wrote: “[W]hen your aim is to conduct a responsive and responsible foreign policy, the avoidance of stupid things is often the avoidance of bloodshed and unforeseen strife.”
All that leaves me pondering this question: Is Obama’s new plan something he genuinely believes in? Or does he recognize it’s stupid, and is just doing it for the optics?
There’s a dismal precedent for the latter option: His decision to extend what he knew was a dead-end war in Afghanistan for two years because of the bellicose promises he’d made in order to look tough during his first political campaign. That time, he traded about 1,300 American lives for optics.
Who knows what the trade might be this time?
Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP