WASHINGTON, September 12, 2014 — President Obama’s comprehensive plan to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State is reminiscent of a research paper assigned months ago and written the night before it was due. It was appropriately delivered in a speech that had a phoned-in quality.
The most surprising thing about the plan is that it was so completely predictable: no boots on the ground; more air strikes; cooperation with the new government in Iraq and moderate rebels in Syria; creating a coalition of Muslim states; continued anti-terrorism efforts and hitting ISIS financially. All of this had already been predicted by the press.
The president’s speech was not about laying out a plan of action, nor was it a clarion call to rally the nation behind a bold policy. It was about convincing the country that he had indeed done his homework. It was a response to sinking poll numbers and scathing criticism of his remark that “we don’t have a plan yet.” It was a political stopgap, an attempt to demonstrate involvement while minimizing risk.
And yet, the plan is full of risk. One of the biggest is that ISIS will not be destroyed without “boots on the ground,” and the boots will be Iraqi and Syrian.
The plan depends on a stable, competent Iraqi government that can lead an effective Iraqi fighting force. It would be premature to assume that the new government will be as inclusive as is needed to bring Sunnis into the fold, and it would be an enormous leap of faith to put our trust in an Iraqi army that has so far been completely inept. We are depending on the efficacy of a government that is less than a week old, and an army that abandoned large amounts of American military equipment to ISIS.
The plan risks antagonizing Turkey, so far Obama’s only Muslim partner in an anti-ISIS coalition, and fracturing Iraq, which is badly divided on ethnic lines, when it strengthens the Kurds. The Kurdish government in Irbil has already managed effective independence; no one in the region except the Kurds wants to see that independence made explicit, and Obama’s plan risks doing just that.
The plan also relies on the creation of an effective fighting force in Syria that will challenge ISIS, challenge President Assad, and not turn on its neighbors or the west. Obama mocked the notion of arming “moderate rebels” as fantasy in August. His plan now depends on the efficacy of just that policy.
Obama’s plan risks adding fuel to the fire of Syria’s civil war. Assad will oppose it, and he has the weapons to give his opposition bite. It risks pushing Iran, which has quietly cooperated with American efforts against ISIS in Iraq, onto the other side of the conflict if our Syrian proxies threaten Assad. At the same time it risks upending negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, which are at a critical juncture this fall.
Obama will be hard pressed to defend the legality of arming the Syrian Free Army when that move is inevitably challenged by Assad’s patron, Russia. It will also be challenged in the U.N., which risks killing Obama’s coalition-building efforts early on. The plan also risks putting the U.S. in the position of becoming the Shiite air force, a role that would be catastrophic to any U.S. leadership role in the region.
Obama presented us with a timid plan that is full of risk. It risks making President Obama, Nobel peace laureate, the author of a new war that will go on for years. It risks making the legacy of the man who in his words “spent four-and-a-half years working to end wars, not to start them” a legacy of continuing, ineffectual war.
But the plan is incomplete. If he has the time to revise and resubmit it, it can fulfill the requirements of the assignment. Obama, unfortunately, seems unenthusiastic about doing that. He has no expertise in foreign policy, especially where military forces are involved. It showed in his presentation; it shows in his plan.