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We Don’t Need No Stinking Strategy

strategy-570x379

Thomas Friedman persuasively defends President Obama’s much-lampooned declaration that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for responding to ISIS. While fully acknowledging the crisis, Friedman correctly notes that coming up with an effective strategy in response is a wicked problem:

To defeat ISIS you have to address the context out of which it emerged. And that is the three civil wars raging in the Arab world today: the civil war within Sunni Islam between radical jihadists and moderate mainstream Sunni Muslims and regimes; the civil war across the region between Sunnis funded by Saudi Arabia and Shiites funded by Iran; and the civil war between Sunni jihadists and all other minorities in the region — Yazidis, Turkmen, Kurds, Christians, Jews and Alawites.

When you have a region beset by that many civil wars at once, it means there is no center, only sides. And when you intervene in the middle of a region with no center, you very quickly become a side.

ISIS emerged as an extreme expression of resentment by one side: Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis who felt cut out of power and resources by the pro-Iranian Shiite regime in Baghdad and the pro-Iranian Alawite/Shiite regime in Damascus. That is why Obama keeps insisting that America’s military intervention must be accompanied, for starters, by Iraqis producing a national unity government — of mainstream Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — so our use of force supports pluralism and power-sharing, not just Shiite power.

But power-sharing doesn’t come easy in a region where kinship and sectarian loyalties overwhelm any sense of shared citizenship. Without it, though, the dominant philosophy is either: “I am strong, why should I compromise?” or “I am weak, how can I compromise?” So any onslaught we make on ISIS, absent national unity governments, will have Shiites saying the former and Sunnis saying the latter. That’s why this is complicated.

To say the least.  Moreover, Friedman notes, the good guys aren’t really good guys and some of the bad guys could win regardless of what we do:

While the Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti governments are pro-American, wealthy Sunni individuals, mosques and charities in these countries are huge sources of funds, and fighters, for ISIS.

As for Iran, if we defeat ISIS, it would be the third time since 2001 that we’ve defeated a key Sunni counterbalance to Iran — first the Taliban, then Saddam, now ISIS. That is not a reason not to do it, but it is reason to do it in a way that does not distract us from the fact that Iran’s nuclear program also needs to be defused, otherwise it could undermine the whole global nonproliferation regime. Tricky.

My default position in these matters is non-intervention, in that we’re not going to be able to solve the problem and may well exacerbate it. It’s simply impossible to calculate the second- and third-order effects of various moves, all of which could make an already horrible situation even worse. At the same time, the sheer level of humanitarian and cultural atrocity being perpetrated—and the serious potential for further spillover into Turkey and other American allies—makes doing nothing a non-option.

Friedman concludes,

I’m all-in on destroying ISIS. It is a sick, destabilizing movement. I support using U.S. air power and special forces to root it out, but only as part of a coalition, where everybody who has a stake in stability there pays their share and where mainstream Sunnis and Shiites take the lead by demonstrating that they hate ISIS more than they hate each other. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the middle of a God-awful mess of duplicitous allies and sectarian passions, and nothing good we do will last.

Given the insightful setup, that’s shockingly Polyannaish. None of the regional actors have either the political will or the military capability to do this. We may be able to get some core NATO allies, including Turkey, on board. And, aside from maybe the Saudis, the notion that anyone besides the US taxpayer will pay for any of this is laugh out loud funny.

Thus, Obama’s current policy—tactical level strikes with no obvious long-term strategic aim—may well be the best we can hope for.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Mark Ivey says:

    I agree James, tactical level strikes(Drones&commandos) with no obvious long-term strategic aim is the only doable option right now.

    But the wacko Republicans will bitch and moan about it regardless because Obamacare and “BENGHAZZI” are tapped out.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 3

  2. Bob@youngstown says:

    is it ever good idea to announce your strategy to your enemy or competitor?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  3. Eric Florack says:

    Certainly, its the best we can hope for with THIS president.
    O’Reilly, who I usually consider a pompus ass, actually made a salient point, last night… the real issue is Obama’s relience on foreign powers to protect americans. such protection is primarily HIS responsibility, and one he has abandoned in the name of ‘not being the world’s policeman’.
    What a leader.

    as for Freidman, he just lost any creds he had.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 29

  4. Eric Florack says:

    @Bob@youngstown: Obamas been doing that all along, else wed not be here. His strategy so far has been to announce what supposedly unpopular actions were being taken off the table. well, thats so far been so centric to Obama policy that the table is now bare…. and Putin and isis, and the rest of the world all know it.

    what a leader.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 25

  5. Butch Bracknell says:

    Could we please stop misusing the word “strategy”? Please? Like my post if you know what I’m talking about. If not, please choose a strategy out of the list below:

    A. Regime change
    B. Containment
    C. Nonproliferation
    D. Lethal unmanned strike

    It’s B. The other choices are methods, tools, and policies. They aren’t strategies. We haven’t had a strategy in a long long time.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 0

  6. Scott says:

    When the President said, ” we don’t have a strategy yet”, I interpreted that to mean ” we don’t have a good strategy yet” or ” we don’t have a strategy that will work” yet.

    Quite frankly, I much prefer that caution and that realism to the “hair on fire” crowd.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 1

  7. C. Clavin says:

    Strategies lead to war. And no strategy is in fact a strategy.
    The problem exists because Bush and Cheney fvcked up…so we have some responsibility. But some , not all.
    Almost everyone has a larger interest in this than us.
    Israel.
    Europe.
    Russia.
    Even China for fvcks sake.
    I’m glad all the wingnuts want to send another 4000 troops to die for nothing…and want to waste another $2 trillion. I don’t. Obama is playing this just fine, thanks.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  8. Rick DeMent says:

    The problem is that the opportunity to actually stabilize Iraq was over once the nano second we decided to invade with no thought as to what would come after the liberation. The reason the Bush administration screwed it up so bad is because they allowed something that looked like a democratic process pick the post liberation government. The only remote shot we had was to install a brutal, secular, puppet leader who would rule with fear, terror and make Saddam Hussein look like Gilligan. But since we were never going to do that, it makes the decision to invade in the first place the stupidest military decision since Custer at Little Big Horn.

    All of this chest thumping will serve no other purpose other then to get a bunch on people who don’t know any better worked up (and to the polls I guess). Invading was a stupid idea then, it’s a stupid idea now and people who are criticizing Obama for not shooting himself in the foot by trying to “do something” are idiots. On this score I am in complete agreement with Dr. Joyner.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  9. Eric Florack says:

    @C. Clavin: Perhaps ypuve not noticed, but we are already at war… a war declared on us.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 21

  10. Butch Bracknell says:

    I sense a continuing misunderstanding of the word “strategy.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  11. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Don’t just do something, SIT THERE!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  12. Bob@youngstown says:

    @Butch,

    excellent point (“stop calling it ‘strategy'”).

    What the media is pushing for, what some congress members are asking for, what many private citizens are expecting is for the battle plans.

    Is it ever a good idea to announce your plan of battle?

    @Eric, I agree that announcing what you will not do (“boots on the ground”) is equally ill-advised.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  13. Eric Florack says:

    @Rick DeMent: Thing is, Rick there WAS a plan.
    A plan that got changed by an election. It was repeatedly indicted when we went into Iraq that wed be there for the long haul.

    That plan got abandoned after the election.
    Like it or not, that’s the fact.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 27

  14. Butch Bracknell says:

    One inconvenient fact: Bush signed the total withdrawal agreement in November 2008.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 31 Thumb down 1

  15. Tyrell says:

    @Bob@youngstown: I agree with that. You don’t want to show your hand. Perhaps the president would have been better off to have said that all options are on the table. His statement that “we don’t have a strategy” was not the best way to put it. It came off as listless, indecisive, unprepared, detached, and weak. Certainly not the way you want to appear to this ISIS group. And the president has been criticized by Democrats too.
    “Smokin” Joe Biden nailed it and said what everyone is thinking when he said that we are going to send them back to h_ _ _ _!! Now if our leaders would speak like that more often. You’re the man, Joe !
    Interesting statement by Gingrich. He said that to defeat ISIS will require thinking outside the box. He actually did not hit the president’s no strategy strategy.
    Two words from the president would have sufficient and supported by everyone: “payback time!”
    “kill, period!” (Colonel Troutman, “Rambo”)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  16. James Joyner says:

    @Butch Bracknell: I agree that “strategy” is often used too loosely but you seem to be construing it too narrowly. Our Cold War containment policy—which was actually several, loosely connected strategies that evolved over time—was an example of “grand strategy.”

    But “strategy” can exist in reference to a situation without an overarching grand strategy. Basil Liddell Hart defined it as ““the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.” Similarly, Colin Gray defined it as “the bridge that relates military power to political purpose.” More concretely, Jack Kem offered that “strategy is the art and science of applying the resources of a nation to the interests and goals of that nation. This requires the integration of the ends (the purposes or objectives of a nation), the ways (courses of action), and the means (the resources of the nation).”

    The reason we lack a strategy vis-a-vis IS(*) is not that we lack a military plan but rather than we lack a concrete policy aim.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  17. stonetools says:

    @Eric Florack:

    as for Freidman, he just lost any creds he had.

    Shorter Eric: I am furious at Friedman for pointing out inconvenient facts! he’s off my reading list.

    OK Eric, you can help us out here by outlining a strategy of your own. Should be easy to do, right? I’m going to take a page out of Mike’s book by setting things up for you.

    1.
    2.
    3.

    OK, go. (I’m not holding my breath).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  18. C. Clavin says:

    @Eric Florack:
    Yeah…I know…you told us just last week that Putin was going to over-run Europe and occupy Paris. Now it’s a civil-war between Muslim factions that threatens our very existence.

    Do you notice that all the people screaming about war…including you…are the same people who fvcked up so bad on Iraq in the first place? Seriously…The local weatherman is more correct more often than you chicken-hawks. If my money-manager was as wrong as often as you keyboard commandos he would be out of a job. Yet you nut-jobs just go prattling on as if you are the only one in the world that has any idea of what’s actually going on…when your record clearly shows that you have no idea. You’ll just have to excuse me if I put zero stock in anything you have to say.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Eric Florack: It was repeatedly indicted when we went into Iraq that wed be there for the long haul. that we’d be welcomed as liberators, that we would not need hundreds of thousands of troops there, and that the Iraqi’s would pay for it. Oh, and the insurgency was in it’s last throes and only being perpetrated by a few “dead enders.”

    FTFY Eric, happy to be of service, you’ll get my bill in the mail.

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  20. stonetools says:

    You know, the whole “grand strategy” idea works if you have a mature Wespthalian state system of established players acting within a set of rules . What you have in Syraq (Sria-Iraq) is an area of conflict in which various players are acting according to the worst stereotypes of Mideast warfare. Its:

    “I and my brother against my cousin; I and my brother and my cousin against the outsider”
    and
    “the enemy of my enemy is my friend: the friend of my enemy is my enemy”

    and the time honored

    “Now is an excellent time to settle a 1300 year old blood feud.”

    In such a conflict, talk of long term strategy is really nonsense. You can’t strategize Calvinball.
    Maybe the most you can do is to minimize the massacres and just whack anyone who whacks you.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  21. C. Clavin says:

    @Tyrell:

    His statement that “we don’t have a strategy” was not the best way to put it. It came off as listless, indecisive, unprepared, detached, and weak.

    Well, even if you are lying about the quote, at least you aren’t just repeating Republican talking points.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  22. Rob in CT says:

    It doesn’t sound good, which matters in politics of course. But then having a strategy didn’t work very well before. Maybe our strategy should be “stay the hell out” but nobody has yet been willing to go there.

    What do we actually want to happen with regard to ISIS, and Syria & Iraq generally? We want things to settle down, basically. But how does that happen? Typically, somebody finally wins. But here we run into trouble. In that region, winning might well involve genocide, for one thing. For another, one guy who could possibly win is Assad, who is a Bad Man (I use this half-mockingly. Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi were also Bad Men who Had To Be Stopped as well, which we all know went swimmingly). The Shiite government of Iraq was happy to engage in ethnic cleansing during the civil war that took place on our watch. The Kurds… if they’re smart they want to hold what they have, but my understanding is that they’ve long dreamt of Kurdistan, and that idea gives Turkey hives.

    The whole place is a goddamned mess and anybody who claims to know how to fix it (from a USian perspective) is most likely a fool or a liar.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  23. stonetools says:

    @Rob in CT:

    The whole place is a goddamned mess and anybody who claims to know how to fix it (from a USian perspective) is most likely a fool or a liar.

    You left out insane as an option. (Looking at right wing comment threads, you’ll see that’s a significant possibility). But yeah, otherwise, you’re pretty much on target.
    I think Obama realizes this, which is why he keeps on trying to pivot from the Middle East. Unfortunately, the ME is like the problem child that can’t be ignored. We spend like 70% of our attention on ME and about 10 % on the Pacific region (pop. about 2 Billion), where it should be the other way around. And Africa and the Americas? Maybe 5%.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  24. @James Joyner: I submit none of those esteemed authors would consider applying military resources to what is essentially a tactical problem in an area smaller than South Carolina to be strategic in nature. We could in fact have a middle east strategy, but I would define it as larger than just application of military power. There can be no such thing as a strategy to defeat ISIS, any more than we could have a strategy to defeat a Russian regiment. There could be a miltipolar strategy to stabilize the Middle East and the Levant or to reduce the influence of radical Islam.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  25. Tyrell says:

    NBC news headline about thousands of ISIS supporters – here in the US !! The FBI is going after them (“head ‘em up, move ‘em out”). Most of our top leaders (Sec. Hagel, Sec. Kerry, General Dempsey): agree that ISIS is worse than Al Quida and is a threat to the US. AG Holder says it keeps him awake at night worrying about it. The good thing is that ISIS has a large territory to control, and does not have a lot of people and resources. The bad news is it is growing and does have a lot of money.
    The president did mention something about “managing” ISIS. Okay. The way to manage them is with body bags. Read “Obama’s Unnerving Happy Talk” , Dana Milbank, Washington Post.
    No strategy, yet. Okay. But in the mean time how about a daily dose of carpet bombs?
    What the president needs to do is put “Mr. Excitement” Joe Biden out to do the talking for him. “Send ‘em to h_ _ _ !” Now that is what we have been waiting to hear. That will rally the country.
    General Custer: he did not have a strategy . He was either in denial about tribal strength or had poor eyesight. And if Major Reno had not gotten lost, they would have won that battle. Custer was a great Civil War officer.
    Make no mistake, ISIS has basically declared war on the US. They have taunted the president.
    “No terms except unconditional surrender” General Grant.
    Did anyone hear that report that our property – embassy in Libya is being used by a bunch of nuts?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 9

  26. Scott says:

    @Tyrell: ISIS would like nothing better than to draw the US into a conflict with them. Playing into their strategy (tactics?) is not a winner.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  27. wr says:

    @Tyrell: “Make no mistake, ISIS has basically declared war on the US. They have taunted the president.”

    Talking trash to the US president is now a declaration of war that demands a full scale military response from us?

    Gosh, one might almost believe that such a policy would allow anyone who disliked America to get us involved in an unending series of expensive, pointless wars that would eat away at the fabric of society as surely as Afghanistan did to the USSR.

    But of course that would require ignoring the levels of deep policy thought you’ve received from such gurus as Colonel Troutman and Marshall Dillon.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  28. Scott says:

    The whole idea that we are at war with ISIS is ludicrous. The US is not in real danger from them. Yes, there may some terrorist acts but that is nowhere near the same as being in danger.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  29. michael reynolds says:

    Eliminate the IS or contain the IS. To me that’s strategic question number one. Containment is the easier of the two, especially short-term. At risk of repeating myself: start with the map. If you look at the IS on the map what you see is a weak military force surrounded by hostile, and much stronger military forces – Jordan, Syria, Baghdad, Saudi Arabia in the inner ring, with Israel, Turkey and Iran forming the second even stronger ring. Above it all hovers the lone superpower plus NATO.

    IS could move to subverting an inner-ring power, but to what long-term purpose? Take Jordan? Not with Israel there. Take the Kurds? Not with the US Air Force at hand. They’ve already failed against Damascus and Baghdad. If they don’t make a thrust into the KSA they’ve got nowhere to go, and if the KSA is willing to fight (always questionable whether the Saudis will use their army of Pakistani mercenaries and Filipino house maids) then IS has nowhere to go.

    But assuming IS is contained, just what threat do they represent? At that point they are barbarians holding a patch of desert and one city – a description that would fit many of the nations in the region.

    Let’s assume – and it is just a guess at this point – that IS is interested in mounting terror attacks in the west. Well, that’s a wee bit dangerous when you’re a terrorist state trying to pump oil, keep the food and water flowing, etc… A terrorist group with a home address is better than a terrorist group we can’t locate.

    So, I’ll play my own game:

    1) Strengthen containment by working with regional forces.
    2) Sanction the nascent IS to cut off their oil, their access to funds, arms, etc…
    3) Provide air power and special forces to help deal with acute outbreaks until locals are ready to cope.
    4) Carry out truly massive retaliation against IS should anything go boom in the west.
    5) Wait for the illogic of extreme Sharia to weaken IS so that it can be nibbled to death from all sides.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  30. michael reynolds says:

    @Tyrell:

    Allowing ourselves to be goaded is not a strategy for us; it may be a strategy for them. Why do you keep insisting that we must respond in precisely the way IS seems to want us to respond?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  31. Butch Bracknell says:
  32. Rafer Janders says:

    @Eric Florack:

    Thing is, Rick there WAS a plan. A plan that got changed by an election. It was repeatedly indicted when we went into Iraq that wed be there for the long haul. That plan got abandoned after the election. Like it or not, that’s the fact.

    Fact:

    “The U.S.–Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (official name: Agreement Between the United States of America and the Republic of Iraq On the Withdrawal of United States Forces from Iraq and the Organization of Their Activities during Their Temporary Presence in Iraq) was a status of forces agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the United States, signed by President George W. Bush in 2008. It established that U.S. combat forces would withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and all U.S. forces will be completely out of Iraq by December 31, 2011.[1] ”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S.%E2%80%93Iraq_Status_of_Forces_Agreement

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  33. Rick DeMent says:

    @Eric Florack:

    The plan you speak of was flawed for the get go because no one in the entire Bush administration decided to consult an anthropologist who was not named Dick Chaney. Had they done that they would have never gone to war in the first place because the only way to contain Iraq was to install another bully boy to replace Hussein. That is the reason the pan didn’t work. The only thing the election did is install a CiC in the white house who gets that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  34. pylon says:

    The real solution is obviously whatever Rand Paul thinks (this week).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  35. michael reynolds says:

    @Butch Bracknell:

    That read like the coffee-break ramblings of a retiree. Zinni had nothing much to say, aside from the Marine’s inevitable assertion that only infantry could get the job done.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  36. Jamal says:

    The best “strategy” is one that can upset all sides in similar strengths on a short term basis but set the seen for the ME one and for all. That strategy was strongly hinted prior and during the liberation of Iraq but filed away with time.
    All the troubles of the ME are from the narrow perspective of the way it’s map was drawn following WW1&2. A redrawing it based on regional homogeneity which has already happened over these past decade and letting different regions to manage themselves will be the best long term option.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Zinni says that if it were up to him, he would send two brigades — between 6,000 and 10,000 troops — into Iraq right now.

    Limited airstrikes against IS targets are not enough, he says.

    “You cannot control people and ground without ground forces,” says Zinni. “Two brigades would take ISIS out of Iraq in a heartbeat. That might give you time to build up the Kurdish and Iraqi military forces.”

    Obama has repeatedly stated his opposition to putting “boots on the ground” in Iraq.

    “I don’t know why there is this big hand wringing about boots on the ground,” says Zinni. “That leads to mission creep, which generates more casualties. We have 1,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and counting. I am sure they are wearing boots.”

    Actually, I think Zinni is right about this. But politically, Obama introducing substantuial US ground forces into Iraq is a complete nonstarter. What Obama is doing now is going with the ground forces he has-the Kurds. That works for northern Iraq but not for Syria-which is why a moderate armed group in Syria would have been useful. Oh well…

    There’s another reason Zinni says he has problems with Obama’s statements about ground forces in Iraq.

    “Why tell the enemy what you are not going to do,” he asks. “That’s like Rocky Marciano saying he is not going to throw a right hook in this fight.”

    Agree 100 per cent here. Liberals and the media might not vlike it, but I am a big fan of the “act first, explain later” school of dealing with terrorist groups.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 3

  38. michael reynolds says:

    @stonetools:

    Had we backed a “moderate” group in Syria the most likely outcome is that ISIS would be sitting in Damascus today. Additional pressure might have toppled Assad, which would leave it as a battle of our moderates vs. ISIS. I know who I’d bet on. So, the most likely outcome would have been a disaster.

    As for not taking ground troops off the table, that’s a political necessity. Mr. Obama needs to hold Democrats together, and his own constituents were not going to stay silent at the prospect of thousands of ground troops.

    Before we go down this road, we really need to ask ourselves why exactly this group of barbarians must be eliminated. I would like an explanation other than “they’re monsters.” Yes, they are monsters. So is Assad, so to lesser extents are all the other governments and players in the region. So why exactly does it matter to us if Al-Baghdadi wants to proclaim a state in empty spaces between Damascus and Baghdad? And are we talking containment or obliteration?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  39. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    Agree 100 per cent here. Liberals and the media might not vlike it, but I am a big fan of the “act first, explain later” school of dealing with terrorist groups.

    Disagree 100 percent here. In a democracy, issues are up for public debate. I certainly don’t want Obama — or any president — to “act first” in committing the nation to an overseas war without it first being debated and discussed and having some consensus achieved among the people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  40. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    Actually, I think Zinni is right about this.

    How is Zinni right? He says that “two brigades would take ISIS out of Iraq in a heartbeat.” Two brigades is anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 soldiers, total.

    Well, during the main occupation phase of the Iraq War, we had anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 US military personnel in Iraq, and we still couldn’t defeat the insurgency.

    Military men like Zinni always over-promise and over-believe what their ground forces are capable of, even in the face of recent overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  41. Dave says:

    @stonetools:

    Which “moderate” group would you favor? Much easier said than done. As for “telling the enemy what you’re going to do”, we are a democracy. Funny how when Obama doesn’t consult Congress he’s the “most lawless President EVER!” But when he states he isn’t immediately planning any major action the critics say he should “just DO it.” Finally, I cannot figure out why his critics think Obama wouldn’t deploy American troops when a good target presents itself. There was recently an American operation in Syria to rescue hostages (unfortunately none were found) and before that Obama ordered American troops into Pakistan to get Osama Bin Laden. I personally don’t doubt for a minute that Obama would order in troops if he thought it would a) accomplish something, and b) not lead to further operations/incidents that would negate the accomplishment and possibly make matters worse.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  42. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Had we backed a “moderate” group in Syria the most likely outcome is that ISIS would be sitting in Damascus today.

    We’ll have to disagree about this. I’ll note that (1) other nations and groups have been able to foster and sustain armed groups in Syria (2) The US has successfully done the “armed group in another country” thing in the past. We liberals like to pretend the USA is 100 per cent incompetent at foreign interventions, but it ain’t neccesarily so.

    So why exactly does it matter to us if Al-Baghdadi wants to proclaim a state in empty spaces between Damascus and Baghdad? And are we talking containment or obliteration?

    Pretty sure ISIS has objectives other than this.That other set of objectives is what we should worry about.He’s declared a Caliphate, and the original Caliphate was a helluva more than what he has now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  43. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    He’s right about us not defeating ISIS without ground forces. Now, what type of ground forces and how many? That’s up for debate.

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  44. Eric Florack says:

    @stonetools: being low on areas, he’s been off my reading list for years.

    @Rafer Janders: I said at the time, the stat for was worse than useless. We should have externally imposed the solution. Say what you will, less people on both sides would have died.

    As for your sniping at Bush…. I’m no fan of Bush, remember… too much the centrist. That said, Bush managed to get 45 countries into line, and of this 5 of every 6 of them sent troops. What coalition has Obama built?

    (Crickets)

    And ponder this…. Obama wants a lot of voices at the international table. Meanwhile, the more voices he has here at home, the more he wants unilateral action. Am I the only one seeing the dichotomy, here?

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  45. stonetools says:

    @Dave:

    Which “moderate” group would you favor? Much easier said than done

    There.Ain’t.No.Easy.options.In.The.Middle.East.

    Just about every liberal objection to fostering moderate groups in the Middle East starts by pointing out there is no ideal moderate group to back , asif we should expect there to be some ready-made model moderate group. Start with the conception that all are options are going to initially be inadequate, because that’s where we are always going to be in the ME.
    Our current allies the Kurds? Remember they started as another ME terrorist group, and that it took years to make them into something like an ally.
    Right now, we are starting years behind. One possibility I haven’t heard discussed: there is a Syrian Kurdish militia, seperate from the other Islamic militias. Right now, I think we have no good options in Syria. But we should be-and probably are-looking to develop some. Realistically, we’re years away from having a ground partner in Syria. What we can do is to work with the partner we have in north Iraq to contain ISIS.

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  46. michael reynolds says:

    @stonetools:

    No doubt ISIS has ambitions. But so what? We need to stop panicking ourselves into believing these guys are ten feet tall. They lost the Mosul dam to poorly-armed Peshmerga backed by US air strikes. They balked at Baghdad. They were stopped at Erbil. They failed against Assad. They couldn’t stop peshmerga from evacuating the Yazidis. They’ve just been stopped at Amerli.

    I have a contrarian view on this. I think they’re in a box, and I think they know they’re in a box. So they’re looking for a game-changer, something to shuffle the deck, even at some cost to themselves. Hence the beheadings.

    They are completely surrounded in the desert by people with air forces. That is not a good place to be. Their only hope is to avoid united action from Jordan, Syria, Baghdad, the KSA and the Kurds. Their Hail Mary pass is to drag us into it, take the local governments off the hook, and survive until we inevitably get bored and go home. For them the real existential danger is local Sunnis and Shia in effect uniting to erase them.

    They are in desperate straits. We are just fine.

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  47. Tyrell says:

    Some of the videos and images on CNN today are enough to stand your hair on end: crucifixions, beatings of women for not having enough covered, executions: I finally had to turn it off it was so horrible. Forming a coalition is great and needs to be done. But that can’t be done overnight. So we must keep them contained, don’t let anyone else join them, get rid of their leaders, get good intelligence, and hunt down those who murdered Foley and Sotloff. And put Biden (“send ‘em to h___!”) In charge. Some daily carpet bombing won’t hurt either.
    Gingrich said that no strategy is better than a bad strategy.
    What the world leaders, NATO, and the UN need to address is the Islamic radical extremism that will require a united, long term, tough strategy.

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  48. Jeremy R says:

    Thomas Friedman persuasively defends President Obama’s much-lampooned declaration that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for responding to ISIS.

    for militarily engaging ISIS inside Syria.

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/08/28/statement-president

    Chuck Todd: Let me start with Syria. The decision that you have to make between — first of all, is it a “if” or “when” situation about going after ISIL in Syria? Can you defeat ISIL or ISIS without going after them in Syria? And then how do you prioritize? You have said that Assad has lost legitimacy to lead. Defeating ISIS could help Assad keep power. Talk about how you prioritize those two pieces of your foreign policy.

    President Obama: [recap of current Iraq strategy] [...]

    What is true, though, is that the violence that’s been taking place in Syria has obviously given ISIL a safe haven there in ungoverned spaces. And in order for us to degrade ISIL over the long term, we’re going to have to build a regional strategy. Now, we’re not going to do that alone. We’re going to have to do that with other partners, and particularly Sunni partners, because part of the goal here is to make sure that Sunnis both in Syria and in Iraq feel as if they’ve got an investment in a government that actually functions, a government that can protect them, a government that makes sure that their families are safe from the barbaric acts that we’ve seen in ISIL. And right now, those structures are not in place.

    And that’s why the issue with respect to Syria is not simply a military issue, it’s also a political issue. It’s also an issue that involves all the Sunni states in the region and Sunni leadership recognizing that this cancer that has developed is one that they have to be just as invested in defeating as we are.

    And so to cut to the chase in terms of what may be your specific concerns, Chuck, my priority at this point is to make sure that the gains that ISIL made in Iraq are rolled back, and that Iraq has the opportunity to govern itself effectively and secure itself.

    But when we look at a broader strategy that is consistent with what I said at West Point, that’s consistent with what I said at the National Defense College, clearly ISIL has come to represent the very worst elements in the region that we have to deal with collectively. And that’s going to be a long-term project. It’s going to require us to stabilize Syria in some fashion, and stabilizing Syria in some fashion means that we’ve got to get moderate Sunnis who are able to govern and offer a real alternative and competition to what ISIL has been doing in some of these spaces.

    Now, the last point with respect to Assad, it’s not just my opinion — I think it would be international opinion — that Assad has lost legitimacy in terms of dropping barrel bombs on innocent families and killing tens of thousands of people. And right now, what we’re seeing is the areas that ISIL is occupying are not controlled by Assad anyway. And, frankly, Assad doesn’t seem to have the capability or reach to get into those areas. So I don’t think this is a situation where we have to choose between Assad or the kinds of people who carry on the incredible violence that we’ve been seeing there. We will continue to support a moderate opposition inside of Syria, in part because we have to give people inside of Syria a choice other than ISIL or Assad.

    And I don’t see any scenario in which Assad somehow is able to bring peace and stability to a region that is majority Sunni and has not so far shown any willingness to share power with them or in any kind of significant way deal with the longstanding grievances that they have there.

    Chuck Todd: Do you need Congress’s approval to go into Syria?

    President Obama: I have consulted with Congress throughout this process. I am confident that as Commander-in-Chief I have the authorities to engage in the acts that we are conducting currently. As our strategy develops, we will continue to consult with Congress. And I do think that it will be important for Congress to weigh in, or that our consultations with Congress continue to develop so that the American people are part of the debate.

    But I don’t want to put the cart before the horse. We don’t have a strategy yet. I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are. And I think that’s not just my assessment, but the assessment of our military as well. We need to make sure that we’ve got clear plans, that we’re developing them. At that point, I will consult with Congress and make sure that their voices are heard. But there’s no point in me asking for action on the part of Congress before I know exactly what it is that is going to be required for us to get the job done.

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  49. Scott says:

    @michael reynolds: And don’t forget the Turks, second only to Israel in military power. And a member of NATO. I agree with you, ISIS is not a threat to the US.

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  50. Scott says:

    @Tyrell: You are right to turn off the news. The visuals go right to our emotions and that is the wrong basis for rational decision making.

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  51. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    Now, what type of ground forces and how many?

    Non-American. Let the Turks, Kurds, Iranians, Saudis and Iraqis deal with them. It’s their backyard.

    Bismarck famously said that “the whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single healthy Pomeranian grenader.” Update that to the Syrian-Iraqi desert and to the bones of a New Yorker paratrooper, and I agree.

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  52. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    The US has successfully done the “armed group in another country” thing in the past. We liberals like to pretend the USA is 100 per cent incompetent at foreign interventions, but it ain’t neccesarily so.

    Which ones are you thinking of?

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  53. Scott says:

    @Rafer Janders: Slightly off topic. The quote from Bismarck was part of a podcast I recently listened to and highly recommend: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. The part I’m listening to is about 12 hours on WWI starting with Europe falling into war. The effects of WWI still reverberates 100 years later and the Middle East is part of that reverberation.

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  54. Rafer Janders says:

    @Scott:

    The effects of WWI still reverberates 100 years later and the Middle East is part of that reverberation.

    Absolutely. Much of what we’re facing today is a direct result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent Sykes-Picot carve-up of the non-Turkish remnant of that realm.

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  55. @Rafer Janders: I said that observation about 43 signing the withdrawal agreement about 20 comments up. And I didn’t use Wikipedia.

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  56. @michael reynolds: You expected The Godfather to engage in an exhaustive analysis of regional security politics in the Tampa Bay Tribune (Online)? The bottom line is, he might be right. Gen Allen — recently commander of ISAF and now a distinguished CFR Fellow — said the same thing. If Gen Zinni wrote an incoherent academic paper, sure, criticism would be warranted, but candid quotes in a newspaper article?

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  57. al-Ameda says:

    This – what is happening in Iraq and Syria – is but only the current and most obvious fallout resulting from the 2003 War In Iraq, arguably the biggest American foreign policy failure since Vietnam. Our 2003 decision to go to war created the vacuum that enables ISIS to flourish.

    I have yet hear or read of ANY course of action beyond the occasional air strike, that makes sense. Republicans have already decided that attacking Obama is as far as they want to go.

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  58. John425 says:

    @C. Clavin: Ah, yes…Clavin is back with his “blame Bush” drivel.

    Announced withdrawal in Iraq—Obama
    Announced withdrawal in Afghanistan–Obama
    Libyan collapse–under Obama
    Russian “reset” and Ukraine invasion—under Hillary and Obama

    Six years after Bush left, Obama’s “no strategy” policy has put the world in it’s most dangerous position in decades.

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  59. Barry says:

    @Bob@youngstown: “is it ever good idea to announce your strategy to your enemy or competitor?”
    It’s more a matter of managing expectations for domestic politics.

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  60. Barry says:

    @Eric Florack: “…the real issue is Obama’s relience on foreign powers to protect americans”

    Um, reality much?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  61. Barry says:

    @C. Clavin: “The problem exists because Bush and Cheney fvcked up…so we have some responsibility. But some , not all.”

    The real strategy is trying to do clean-up and damage control on a situation deliberately f-ed up by Republicans.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  62. Ben Wolf says:

    @John425:

    Six years after Bush left, Obama’s “no strategy” policy has put the world in it’s most dangerous position in decades.

    The world outside the United States does not reset itself to neutral each time an American president leaves office. Each executive is constrained by the actions of presidents before them.

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  63. michael reynolds says:

    @John425:

    If you ignore reality your comments have no weight.

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  64. michael reynolds says:

    @Butch Bracknell:

    I’m just referring to what I see, I can’t refer to what I imagine he might have said.

    But again, BEFORE deciding what to do, we should ask ourselves just what the threat is. Can you explain what you think it is, and how General Zinni’s two battalions would save us?

    Do we expect to kill every last member of ISIS? Do we believe that such an all-out attack would preserve us from an ISIS-inspired terrorist attack? Because I can’t help but notice that of the world’s terrorists, the ones we have trouble with are the ones not attempting to hold territory. Hamas does not attack us, Hezbollah does not attack us, both are quasi-states and have a home address.

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  65. stonetools says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Which ones are you thinking of?

    The USA has militarily intervened and overthrown a number of governments over the years(mostly in Latin America). In the ME, there were “successful” interventions in Iran (1954) and Lebanon (1958). The first was to overthrow a government; the second to prop up a regime.These interventions didn’t produce sweetness and light: but they achieved the USA’s short term policy goals.
    More recently, the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan was the outcome of US intervention at the end of the Persian Gulf War-itself a successful military operation.
    Bottom line: US military intervention CAN work, in the right conditions. The peril is in imagining conditions are always right.

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  66. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    ISIS is certainly not an “existential threat” as David Brooks avers. But leaving them alone would be a dangerous option. I agree with you that containment would be best-but I’m not sure airstrikes alone will get the job done, especially if we can’t strike them in Syria.
    One thing is clear: taking ime ad formulating a strategy is the way to go, not blindly striking at them a la John McCain style.

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  67. anjin-san says:

    @ John425

    the world in it’s most dangerous position in decades.

    Yea, that’s what my mother keeps saying. Of course she is elderly, relies exclusively on talking heads on cable TV for her information, and she gets confused very easily nowadays.

    What’s your excuse?

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  68. John425 says:

    @anjin-san: @anjin-san: Your mother has her head screwed on straight. You are the one with cognitive dissonance

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  69. John425 says:

    @michael reynolds: I’m up on reality, just not “with it” in ignoring trends, facts and rewriting history to absolve liberals.

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  70. anjin-san says:

    @ John425

    Fox says “be scared” – resistance is futile.

    At least for you…

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  71. Tyrell says:

    @Rafer Janders: WWI: yes, things were stabilized and straightened out under the leadership of Allenby, Lawrence, and Faisal. Junk like ISIS is what is what happens when there is an absence of leadership and order.

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  72. Eric Florack says:

    @Barry: Yeah, reality.
    what response to the already murdered americans?
    Oh, yeah. another round of golf.

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  73. John425 says:

    @anjin-san: Sounds like you are a happy member of the Borg Collective.

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  74. Just 'nutha' Ig'rant Cracker says:

    @Eric Florack: Sorry, but due to the nature of our system a plan that will take more than 8 years to complete is probably unworkable and should not be started.

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  75. Rafer Janders says:

    @stonetools:

    But stone, you’d first said that:

    The US has successfully done the “armed group in another country” thing in the past. We liberals like to pretend the USA is 100 per cent incompetent at foreign interventions, but it ain’t neccesarily so.

    Then when I ask for examples, you cite:

    In the ME, there were “successful” interventions in Iran (1954) and Lebanon (1958). The first was to overthrow a government; the second to prop up a regime.These interventions didn’t produce sweetness and light: but they achieved the USA’s short term policy goals. More recently, the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan was the outcome of US intervention at the end of the Persian Gulf War-itself a successful military operation.

    None of these were “arming a group in another country”, though. Iran in 1954 was just a straight-up coup engineered by the CIA, and Lebanon in 1958 was a partial occupation of Beirut by the US Army, Navy and Marines at the direct request of the Lebanese government. And the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan was also not accomplished by “arming a group in another country” but simply by the US military invading and overthrowing Saddam’s government and occupying Iraq directly.

    Not to pick on you, but none of those are actually examples of successful US interventions in another country, at least as you were previously discussing them. Most of the “arm a group in aother country” inteventions we’ve done in the past have been a long-term disaster for both the US and for the armed group (Tibetan Buddhists in the 1950s, Hmong in Vietnam and Laos in the 1950s-1970s, the Bay of Pigs, etc.).

    The only real “success” that I can think of was arming the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s to throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but the subsequent history has not been a happy one and it’s debatable whether in the long-term we might have actually been better off had we acquiesed to that invasion…..

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  76. Eric Florack says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ Ig’rant Cracker: I take your point, but that’s only true if we keep putting leftists in positions of power.
    That definitions includes much of the GOP, by the way.

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  77. Grewgills says:

    @stonetools:

    In the ME, there were “successful” interventions in Iran (1954) and Lebanon (1958).

    Those are rather good examples of the unintended consequences of short term thinking and rather undercut your argument to act more forcefully.

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  78. Rafer Janders says:

    @Grewgills:

    Yes, had we not overthrown the democatic if left-leaning Iranian government in 1954 and installed the corrupt and autocratic Shah, there’s good reason to believe that Iran might now be a normal, prosperous,and relatively-democratic country on the order of, say, Turkey.

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  79. Eric Florack says:

    Ed Discoll says it well….

    The failure demonstrated by Obama and his administration over the last several weeks and months as the ISIS threat grew and metastasized is, at its core, a leadership crisis. Forget being the leader of the free world; this President can’t even lead his own team within one coherent message and strategy. As ABC’s State Department reporter Ali Weinberg remarked yesterday, this was the message just from one single day: “We’re going to destroy ISIS. Or manage them. Or shrink their sphere of influence. Or follow them to the gates of hell.”

    With that failure to generate a united and coherent approach to ISIS among his own team, how could anyone expect the President to lead the world against this new terrorist army and the threat it poses to the region and the world?

    The answer is glaring, and rather jarring to the left… he cant.
    Welcome to reality, folks.

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