Can Obama Resist Hawks’ Pressure to Rush to Syria Quagmire?

By Adam Quinn, University of Birmingham via The Conversation

US president Barack Obama has yet to work out exactly what America’s strategy is in confronting Islamic State (IS), and has been foolish enough to say so in public. Cue the foreseeable torrent of point-scoring from opponents.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp perceptively pointed out, however, a more sympathetic interpretation of what Obama meant in context is not “that he has no idea what he’s doing in Iraq”, but rather that:

… there is no good strategy available for fully defeating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

With all due respect to a Washington foreign policy community apparently surprised and annoyed by Obama’s reluctance to jump in with both feet with a major military intervention, his instincts are sound.

I have written in The Conversation before that the smorgasbord of unpalatable options available to Obama owes a great deal to the cataclysmically destabilising actions in the region of his predecessor, most especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I have also argued elsewhere that the president was wise to be extremely wary of wading into an interventionist role during the early stages of the Syrian civil war.

Arguments that the US could have averted IS’s rise by funnelling weapons to moderates at the right time are a comforting fantasy, predicated on an inflated estimation of the United States’ ability to shape events on the ground.

But let’s not re-litigate the past here. What can or should Obama do? And is he guilty of shilly-shallying in a situation that demands urgent action?

First, the obvious. IS’s rise is bad from the perspective of pretty much everybody except the group itself. As an ideological force it combines religious fundamentalism, sectarianism and brutality in such a strong brew that even al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be associated with its actions.

With its proclivity for mass executions, forced conversions and ethnic cleansing, IS has managed the impressive feat of being utterly friendless in a region where being the right person’s enemy is usually sufficient to make you at least one or two allies of convenience. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan put it:

It’s a phenomenal thing: Everybody hates ISIS – the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel. Nearly all Middle Eastern countries and their big-power backers (including Russia and probably China too) would like to see it crushed.

Its new tactic of gruesomely beheading kidnapped American journalists – partly as ransom-blackmail scheme, partly a pose of warped ideological bravado – has merely confirmed its status as the ne plus ultra of international pariahs. This should augur well for bringing about its ultimate defeat. The chief obstacle lies in the fact that while all these governments may not want to see IS triumphant, the incompatibilities between what they do want are sufficiently stark as to render concerted action tricky.

The decisions about limited US intervention that Obama has had to make thus far have been, if not so easy as to be automatic, then at least not among the most challenging he has ever had to make.

When northern Iraq’s Kurds, arguably the United States’ most solid and reliable allies in the region for the last two decades, needed support from the air to repel a sudden IS advance into their domain, retake a key dam and facilitate the escape of thousands of fleeing Yazidi civilians trapped on a mountain, it was an unwelcome re-entangling of the United States in intra-Iraqi conflict. But it was so obviously the right thing to do that in the end it presented little in the way of a dilemma.

How – and whether – to go about the vastly larger task of breaking IS control over the territory it still commands is a far more difficult question. In Syria, where IS is firmly established as the dominant anti-government rebel force, there is no way that the United States can strike at it without tacitly aiding the cause of Bashar al-Assad. The UN has accused the regime of war crimes and Obama has explicitly demanded Assad should leave office.

Yet according to Obama’s top military adviser, there may be no way to really knock IS from its perch in either country without acting within Syria.

Even if we limit the question to action that might be taken within Iraq, while it may be clear that the US should be willing to act to defend its staunch Kurdish allies, it is far from clear that it can uncomplicatedly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Iraqi national government.

That government, whose closest international ally is Iran and whose brazenly sectarian Shia orientation – at least until Nouri al-Maliki’s toppling as prime minister in August – his replacement is yet to be tested – did more than anyone to feed the profound sense of disenfranchisement among the Sunni population that provided IS with the fertile soil in which its roots are now deeply embedded.

Even if Obama were to set aside all his rational and temperamental reservations about re-deploying US military resources more fully in Iraq, there is no reason to believe – as The Economist’s Matt Steinglass has pointed out – that the US knows any better now than it did in 2003 how to successfully navigate the essential next stage. That is to construct an Iraqi state with the pluralistic culture and institutions required to address the underlying source of disillusion and violent resistance on the part of Iraq’s Sunnis.

The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who has spent much time on the ground in the region today and over the past decade, may have offered the key insight. He suggests that the US is the last actor still clinging to the idea of “Iraq” as a viable political entity long after the “Iraqis” themselves, of all religious and ethnic stripes, have moved on.

If the US is to make it a priority to undermine – and ultimately destroy – IS as a political force, it will be a tough mission. It will require patient and skilful coalition-building, and a willingness to significantly compromise America’s ideals on other fronts.

Throughout such an effort, Obama will have to contend with a general population at home that is sick and tired of wars. Americans are disinclined to shed blood for anything short of a true emergency.

He will also face constant sniping from political opponents whose primary mode of engagement with foreign policy has become the issuing of vacuous paeans to strength, leadership and “urgency” – all of which Obama is asserted to have in insufficient quantity – rather than constructive engagement with the unhappy trade-offs America’s actually existing options demand.

If Obama is to take all this on, it would be useful to know not just whom the US would be seeking to kill and what bad things they have done, but towards what realistic, achievable end-state it would be fighting. That is the great unanswered question of US involvement in both Iraq and Syria today.

Being increasingly aware of this, it is no wonder Obama still considers his strategy a work in progress. Unencumbered by such awareness, his bellicose critics embody the facile faith in the utility of military force that did so much to generate America’s present Middle Eastern sorrows.

The Conversation

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Related videos added by Juan Cole:

The Young Turks: ” Coalition Of Major Powers Gather To Battle ISIS”

2 Responses

  1. Yah, this post is about Iraq and Syria and all that, but speaking of “unpalatable options,” and the effects on the planet of the clumsy and idiotic “foreignpolicymilitaryindustrialcommercialhegemoniccommunity” hiding out under the chimaerical “protection” of the Imperial Bubble and the “US nuclear umbrella” while its unaccountable members suck the wealth out of the former nation and the rest of the planet so they can Live Large and Be Pleasured, one might do well to note Obama’s recent Thunder in Ireland:

    “We will defend our Nato allies – every ally,” he said. “In this alliance, there are no old members or new members, no senior partners or junior partners – there are just allies, pure and simple. And we will defend the territorial integrity of every single one.”

    “You lost your independence once before,” Mr Obama said following meetings with Baltic leaders in the Estonian capital of Tallinn. “With Nato, you’ll never lose it again.” [You might be reduced to radioactive slag or Syria/Iraq/Gaza-class rubble, but you’ll be “independent,” all right… as long as you do what we tell you…]

    Mr Obama, who faces criticism in the US for being too cautious in confronting Russian president Mr Putin, sharply condemned Moscow’s to

    Sounds an awful lot like the verbal posturing, the chin noise of Great Leaders of Great Empires, that fronted all the preparations of Great Huge Idiotic Clumsy Military-Industrial Establishments in the careful detailed preparations, see,. e.g., the first five chapters of Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” link to, for the Great War that bled out the economies and populations of Europe and a lot of the rest of the world, see, e.g., “The African Queen,” link to — destruction not, unfortunately, limited to the Northern Hemisphere.

    And now there’s maybe 6 or 8,000 nukelar weapons ready to go, on all “sides,” link to, and them damn Commie Rooskies sure seem to be getting as ready as Our Sacred Nato Forces for that gentle-sounding “nuclear exchange:”

    “Russia’s Military Begins Massive Nuclear War Drill —

    On Thursday, 10,000 Russian troops began a drill simulating the massive use of nuclear missiles.” (story from March 29, 2014)
    link to

    And not to be outdone, the US/NATO thing does this:

    “OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. – U.S. Strategic Command will conduct Exercise Global Lightning 14 from May 12-16 in coordination with other combatant commands, services, and appropriate U.S. government agencies to deter and detect strategic attacks against the U.S. and its allies.

    Exercise Global Lightning 14 has been planned for more than a year and is based on a notional scenario. The timing of the exercise is unrelated to real-world events.” link to

    “unrelated to real-world events”? Heeheeheeheeheehee… sob…

  2. Can Obama Resist Hawks’ Pressure to Rush to Syria Quagmire?
    The answer is NO. Nor can congress resist the same pressure. America has already started with its many bombings, and about 1,000 extra “security” to Iraq. ISIL is winning, because America is reacting. If ISIL keeps up the beheadings, then America will keep committing blood and treasure. ISIL has a game-plan. America does not.

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