Obama’s ISIL Actions are Defensive, Despite Rhetoric of going on Offense

By Juan Cole

President Obama’s speech launching his war on ISIL avoided the qualifications that he had earlier made, which had produced caviling inside the Beltway from politicians who confuse careless belligerency with decisiveness.

From a language of containing ISIL, he was forced to speak of degrading and destroying it. He went back and forth between trying to reassure the left wing of the Democratic Party that he had not suddenly been possessed by the ghost of Dick Cheney and assuring the skittish American people that he was going to make mincemeat of the terrorist American-beheaders.

Analysts will focus on his four-step program of fighting ISIL, but it is in the president’s analogies to his present battle that we find clues to what he really expects to happen. He says that this is not a war as Iraq and Afghanistan were wars, i.e. with the commitment of several divisions of conventional US ground troops. He cautioned:

“But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

Invoking Yemen and Somalia is a signal of minimalism in every way. On MSNBC, veteran, experienced and brilliant correspondent Richard Engel took apart this analogy. He pointed out that Yemen and Somalia are holding actions but that in Iraq the US and its allies would have to take territory.

But what if Obama is talking big but carrying a soft stick? What if he really does mean he has a Yemen-like situation in mind?

What if Obama wants to prevent the fall of Baghdad, Erbil and even Riyadh? What if he is privately skeptical about Baghdad recovering Mosul any time soon? He has after all used drones in Waziristan in northwest Pakistan not to inflict military defeat but for tactical advantage. Iraq and Syria are the new Waziristan.

Yemen is of course a mess. In the north you have a Zaidi Shiite rebellion, the Houthis, who recently have threatened the capital, Sanaa. In the south you have secessionists of various stripes, some nationalists and some fundamentalists. On the Red Sea coast you have Sufis and some Salafi fundamentalists, the latter shading at one end of the spectrum into al-Qaeda. You also have al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsuala (AQAP) in the south and east. A third of Yemenis go to bed hungry every night. The country suffers from lack of water. Oil exports are limited. It is the poorest Arabic-speaking country. US air strikes and drones have arguably alienated and radicalized more Yemenis than they have killed al-Qaeda members.

The best that can be said for US actions against AQAP in Yemen is that they may have forestalled AQAP and kindred groups from taking and holding some provinces. For instance, AQAP took over Zinjibar and some other towns in Abyan Province in 2011, but in 2012 a government offensive backed by US air power and aided by grassroots anti-al-Qaeda popular committees expelled AQAP from Abyan.

True, AQAP relocated east to Hadramawt, and it still kills Yemeni soldiers, but it is farther from Sanaa now and it really did lose Abyan province, which it had hoped to make a caliphate.

Obama hinted in his speech that he wants to help Baghdad and Erbil take back towns from ISIL just as Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the president of Yemen, took back Zinjibar. And just as AQAP hasn’t disappeared in Yemen, Obama expects ISIL to be around for a while. In essence, the Yemen policy has de facto yielded a sort of containment with regard to AQAP, though how successful it will be in the long run can be questioned.

What if Obama is a sharper reader of the Middle East than his critics give him credit for? He knows ISIL is likely not going away, just as, after 13 years, the Taliban have not. US military action may even prolong the lifetime of these groups (that is one argument about AQAP) even as it keeps them from taking more territory.

Don’t listen to his expansive four-stage program or his retooled, stage-managed John Wayne rhetoric. Look at his metaphors. He is telling those who have ears to hear that he is pulling a Yemen in Iraq and Syria. He knows very well what that implies. It is a sort of desultory, staccato containment from the air with a variety of grassroots and governmental forces joining in. Yemen is widely regarded as a failure, but perhaps it is only not a success. And perhaps that is all Obama can realistically hope for.

The White House: “President Obama Addresses the Nation on the ISIL Threat”

29 Responses

  1. Something I was hoping to hear from President Obama and did not was a clear differentiation between ISIS and Muslims. That is, our opposition to ISIS has to do with its wanton violence and brutality, not to do with its religious claims. Perhaps it is too much to ask that the President make clear what the media do not, i.e., that we have no interest in trying to alter or punish religious belief but we do believe we have a stake in the way in which groups articulate social and political grievances when those ways threaten peace and justice. Of course we are lumbered with our own extremists who are happy with a renewal of the Crusades; for them to make this a religious conflict is just fine. And there are those who would shy away from discussing social and political grievances because such discussions illuminate the ways in which policy, e.g., the support for dictatorships or for the repression and displacement of the Palestinians, feeds contemporary conflict. To address grievances rather than value sets such as religion may risk recognition of the sordid and self-interested actions giving rise to the grievances that threaten society at large.

    To the extent members of ISIS are fundamentalist extremists they need the same kinds of restraints we impose on others whose arrogance and self-absorption makes them a threat to society at large. To the extent they are people whose frustration and rage are situationally-derived we may want to invest some effort managing causes rather than effects.

  2. Presumably what’s needed is some kind of quasi-competent state apparatus in the north and west of Iraq, to which the citizens of that region feel loyalty. Will the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government provide it? Will the Shiite-dominated Iraqi ‘army’ be accepted as a defense force, should it even choose to fight? This doesn’t seem likely. It appears the local citizenry regards them as a serious threat — and they have their reasons.

    Could it be that the current ‘caliphate’ is a fairly natural region for a state of some sort, distinct from neighboring regions? And that the only hope is to establish one? Perhaps JC can comment on this speculation.

  3. Not seeing that “vision thing” in the face of what appears to be overwhelming inertia now, “when push comes to shove” “when it really really matters,” when it’s “do or die” “crunch time” The ISIL’s “caliphate” has as much or more reality than the real-world, dawn on maps, nation-states of Iraq and Syria at this point.
    And it’s one-two-three. what are we fighting for?
    Damned if I know. Not with a bang but a whimper.
    That vision thing is still missing (along with billions dollars of dollars stolen in the last decade, by people placed in a position to do so).
    Obama certainly knows that 3 or 5 years will not end this fight, that like other “separatist” movements, it has the makings for yet another never-ended generational conflict.

  4. I found that I could listen to exactly 1:02 of the president’s speech last night. It is probably more than I have heard from him in some time, since I don’t have TV and tend to read his speeches rather than watch embedded videos online. While I can’t say that I have been his biggest fan, I also admit that I hoped for something with him that would not be more of the same. And while I don’t entertain any illusions that things would be much better under a different administration, I must still admit that I found shocking the language he used last night and the proposal for what I can only assume will be the extension of an already indefinite war (in both time and space) into who knows what or when. My frustration is of course no match for the real suffering and devastation that will be rained down, or the various forms of asymmetrical warfare that will also continue in a vicious circle, in all its gruesomeness. Perhaps I should listen for his analogies rather than his rhetoric, but already, this non-war-war is slated to extend beyond his administration. Ultimately, then, such distinctions may not matter. So, just basic questions from an ignorant person: is this really necessary? Is this the best “we” can do?

  5. Some good points here. Likely the US can help prevent IS from taking and holding, and perhaps drive it back to insurgency. But regardless of success there, the ideas and motives will not be defeated, and militarism without progress for Sunnis will recruit more insurgents. A less extreme Sunni state in those areas seems likely in the long run anyway.

    It seems likely in the absence of any effective US diplomacy or massive humanitarian aid, that the real goal is to continue setting Islamic groups against each other for the benefit of Israel and the military industry. Whether that is Obama’s goal or one he is forced to accept ,or cannot see beyond due to his military advisers, I cannot say. But likely it does not matter, as US policy is not driven by its people or to any decent ends.

  6. …”Don’t listen to his expansive four-stage program or his retooled, stage-managed John Wayne rhetoric. Look at his metaphors. He is telling those who have ears to hear that he is pulling a Yemen in Iraq and Syria. He knows very well what that implies. It is a sort of desultory, staccato containment from the air …”
    Defensive, Professor?
    Focus on his metaphors?
    Your hitherto excellent insights are now coöpted to support potus’

  7. Very nice parsing, or is it deconstruction, of our feckless leader’s oration.

    Of course, for most Americans the response will be, “Yemen? What the hell does that have to do with anything? Do we have a war going there? Really? How long has that been going on?”

    Looking forward to a re-broadcast of the I Have a Drone speech.

  8. At some point all the religious viewpoints have to get visibility or the game just cycles around again. Bush made sure Iraq would never be at peace within itself with the wonderful constitution he foisted upon them. I’m just glad the President did not cave to the Neocons with a blood and guts dive back into Mess-o-potamia.

  9. Dr Cole: As a regular reader I am constantly amazed at how little I am able to grasp, let alone understand, the complexities of the region. I try hard to comprehend the wide-ranging subtlety that tribe, religious faith, valley or village allegiance plays in the thinking of the people and I constantly fail miserably. Years ago I had a boss that used what he called “the farmer in the field” approach to addressing complex problems. He said that if you could not go out and explain the issue(s) to a farmer working in the field, you were severely lacking in the communication skills necessary to making your point(s) understood and in all probability, understanding the issues as well. His comment was not made to denigrate in any way the farmer’s intelligence.
    Here is my concern, without pandering, if a person of your knowledge, experience and dedication to learning has trouble making someone like myself understand these very complex issues, how can we expect the government to successfully reach out to all of us “farmers in the fields” and understand, much less support, their policies, plans and programs?

  10. I would have been impressed if Obama were talking about an anti-ISIS coalition that included Iran. I realize that’s got a legitimate, non-Israel Lobby drawback. If Iranian troops are front and center in driving ISIS out of Sunni towns, yeah, that will provoke a backlash. But then, sometimes people don’t deserve to feel provoked. If ISIS are bad guys, then the people who support them – whether billionaire Saudis or wretched Anbar refugees – embrace moral responsibility for ISIS’ particularly sadistic modus operandi. Iran is a lesser evil than ISIS even more than Stalin was a lesser evil than Hitler in the context of a world war.

    And without Iranian muscle and its ties to the Iraqi Shia and Kurds, there’s no way to create a functioning state. Because the US proved it doesn’t know how to create one. We don’t understand other cultures well enough to do nation building. Yet someone is going to have to do it.

    Iran is also necessary because Putin’s mischief in the Ukraine makes it hard to get the Russians involved in any way beyond their demand to preserve Assad and their naval base in Syria. We can’t demand that Putin get out of the Ukraine and then at the same time expect him to do us a favor in Iraq, unless we give him something really big in return. I don’t know if we have such a thing to give.

    The main job of the US is to strongarm the Arab monarchies into accepting that their attempt to use jihadis to co-opt the Syrian revolution and impose terror on Iraqis is so offensive to the rest of the world as to jeopardize their membership in the world community. They could have found or shaped a more moderate movement and kicked in more petrobucks for better weapons to compensate, but they did it this way because they are oblivious to world opinion. The US and the Arab ultraconservatives both have proven unworthy of ruling Iraq. But the US still has to disarm the ever-growing Cold War between the Arabs and Iranians to prevent countless other wars and remove future temptations for US intervention. Getting them both into the same coalition is messy, but it’s a way of forcing them to negotiate some sort of demarcation of interests in the lands in between.

    Like it or not, that’s the best we can do.

  11. As I keep hearing about ISIS, ISIL and IS, allegedly one and the same bunch, I keep wanting to ask: Exactly who are these guys?
    The answers I keep getting are that they are a bunch so tenacious and so ruthless that school children will be reading about them 1000 years from now. Their exploits join the tales of such hordes as Huns & Mongols.
    Doing a little calculus on the back of an envelope, here is what I find: One ISIL soldier is equal to 100 well-trained warriors. The math works. 5,000 ISIL combatants can match a half million warriors. If you further realize that feeding an army of half million is exponentially huge compared to sustaining an ISIL army; then you know that there is indeed a problem!
    Beware world!

  12. Aren’t we confronting an administered territory, rather than a roving gang of thugs? Without praising ISIS in any way for the way it does this administration, when we bomb them and the unfortunate collateral’s, we will be eliminating or degrading local governance without the slightest hint of what will fill the vacuum.

    Vengeful Shiite boots on the ground may well result in rape and pillage replacing ISIS’s nasty stuff. Somalia and Yemen are so deep in the periphery of of our awareness, that who rapes and pillages who is not a public concern in the US. ISIS is as big a spot on our radar as you can get.

    Metaphorically, last night Obama announced a clumsy stroll through the Pottery Barn.

    • “Metaphorically, last night Obama announced a clumsy stroll through the Pottery Barn.”

      How true. I cannot, for the life of me, see this turning out for the better. I can certainly see it turning out poorly, very poorly. Does anybody know that invading Iraq, Syria and elsewhere costs a huge amount of money? Not to mention human casualties… And who amongst the people in those foreign lands will increase their love for America?
      ISIS is a criminal organization. ISIS is a bunch of punks. ISIS is more like the KKK, or the Mob than anything else. Big Daddy (Al-Baghdadi) is a punk like Charlie Manson or Al Capone. He and his punks will burn out eventually. I fear that America’s emphasis will wind up giving Big Daddy some valuable “street-cred” that will give him more strength than ever. Nevertheless, he will die, with or without America’s involvement.

  13. Yemen’s been going on for 5 years or there about, starting after the Saudi discovered that they didn’t like losing soldiers in the process of securing their southern border (lost 17 in one month, the nation reeled) trying to keep Al-Qa’ida out —

    Our first notorious drone strike came a month later in November 2009. (that’s the one of Wikileak’s fame where Saleh “‘pretended” it was of Yemeni origin. [[ wikipedia: On December 17, 2009, the village of Al Ma`jalah was hit by a cruise missile, killing 41 people, including 14 women, 21 children, and 14 alleged al-Qaeda members. While the Yemeni government initially took responsibility, photographs of American components and a Wikileaks cable suggest that it was carried out by the United States. ]] **
    Gee, I wonder who’s gonna play the part of Saleh this time around?

    ** I remember it vividly because initial reports — that I had read — calling the strikes American were scrubbed from several publications — impressive.

    First Al-Qa’ida , AQIP and now it’s the Shiia militia giving the government headaches ….

  14. ISIL seems very familiar to me because it seems a lot like the street gangs here in the Southwest where I live. In many ways, ISIL’s action mirrors the brutal behavior Los Zetas, MS-13, the Bloods, the Crips, and the dozens of other gangs that are in the United States and across the border in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. See this link about MS-13:
    link to samuellogan.com

    Note what the Director of US Programs for World Vision says, “You don’t move people out of gangs, people move themselves out of gangs.”

    What does our “Gang” of the West offer the young people who have been “jumped in” to ISIL? People who often lack family (i.e. father killed in tank during Shock and Awe; mother shot at U.S. checkpoint?), lack jobs (thanks to sanctions and war), and lack education (thanks again to sanctions and war) are not likely to be intimidated by the threat of more random death raining down from the heavens; after 13 years, they have learned to live with the uncertainty of death. What we need to offer is an alternative path for youth so that ISIL isn’t their only option for finding a social network and support.

    Many of today’s 20-year old militants were scared 7-year-old kids when we blew into Iraq in 2003. Their lives were turned upside down. Many of them were pulled out of school and never learned to read or write. What can we expect of human beings who were thrust into hell on earth? That they should somehow come out of such horror as grounded, productive, and decent human beings?

    And now we plan to kill them for becoming Hellboys in the Babylonian Crucible of Hell?

    I’ve tutored former gang kids, helping them study to get their GEDs. They struggle to find a path out. The gangs offer family, security, work, and clear-cut objectives. The best way to beat gangs is to provide a healthier option that also offers family, security, work, and clear-cut objectives. You see the right path in organizations like conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s musical program El Sistema where the “gang” is a new musical family. You see it in programs in the U.S. where urban kids dance in hip hop groups, compete in spelling bees, or participate in science competitions.

    Rather than bombing we should be asking Saudi Arabia and Qatar to form moderate schools of progressive Islamic learning and institutes that teach the best traditions of the artistic and cultural heritage of the Arab world as well as the latest in modern thought. They should be recruiting just as heavily as ISIL.

    If there is somewhere else for disaffected youth to go, it will be hard for ISIL to exist. If we don’t help to create that somewhere else, we shouldn’t be surprised if lost people continue to look for meaning in the arms of ISIL.

    • Creating that “somewhere else” ain’t going to happen. Pay any attention to what goes on in the idiot space in our imperial capital, where huge amounts of money and “influence” slosh back and forth, unaccountable and blessed with idiotic impunity from the actual consequences of their idiot “decisions, and it’s apparent that the effing Rulers that are sucking the life out of the former nation called “America,” and beating up on the weakest and most needy of us, for their personal pleasure and profit, are not about to attend to the remedies that might have a prayer of slowing the rush to manufacture huge blocks of anomie, that then convert to “identity” and become the stones that pile up into these Hordes, these gangs as you so appropriately name the phenomenon.

  15. Prof Cole, I’m wondering after Iraq is broken up plus Syria on the verge, how this all might play into Israel’s balkinization plan for ME– Israel coming out largest & most stable in an area with smaller states than today, segregated Sunni or Shia.
    It seems ISIL has been useful in Iraq against Iran & Syria against Assad. Or is it coincidence that the countries around Israel are fracturing, with plenty of our help? Seems like their long time plan is happening, even acknowledging SA in the mix.

    • “It seems as though ISIL has been useful in Iraq against Iran & Syria against Assad………..”

      I disagree.

      Many feel that the Iraqi government is controlled by Iran, so to oppose Iran, to the extent this may be occurring, does not advance American foreign policy objectives since both the Iranian regime and the U.S. State Department both want a stable government in Baghdad.

      ISIL has not been useful against Assad for the primary reason that even Assad’s most bitter critics concede that ISIL acquiring control over areas in Syria now occupied by the Baathists may result in violent reprisals against Alawites and Twelver Shiites – not to mention Christians – and that this fear has led Syrian citizens to support continued Baathist control over government-held areas within Syria.

      Secondly, many commentators have pointed out that ISIL is actually damaging the rebel movement by committing atrocities as well as engaged in combat against other groups fighting the Baathists. ISIL is also supplying the Baathist regime with oil.

      • I meant re Syria ISIL is helping break it up, against Assad. Re Iraq, we tried to get Maliki to be more ‘inclusive’ but he got closer to Iran. Enter ISIL.

        • We’re in bed with Saudi Arabia and Israel and supposedly can’t ally with Iran or Syria. Yet the latter two are only ones who can actually help deter ISIL. ISIL is targeting Shia or not sufficiently religious Sunnis and of course us. ISIL is serving a purpose in Iraq–you can’t leave the Sunnis out if gov’t—as well as Syria, where the rebels can’t overpower Assad but ISIL maybe could. So now we’re involved.
          I’m just trying to understand, knowing what MSM feeds me isn’t much truth.

  16. A defensive action, rather than an offense, makes me wonder if Syrian bombing will be started along the borders of Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Defensively.

  17. Nowhere do I see in the tea leaves or the Turkish coffee mud how he plans to bomb ISIS in Syria without Bashar’s consent. Wondering how all this is going to play out. With Bashar still at the helm, there is no danger of Yemenization IMHO.

    • Syria came out today and say it was fine with them if Obama bombed ISIL on Syrian soil. Even suggested an alliance.

      • In a Reuters article today, it was reported that Obama is seeking from Congress a $500 million aid package to the Free Syrian Army.

        It is improbable that the U.S. will enter into any alliance with Assad in the foreseeable future.

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