So, another war in Iraq. On this superficial basis, some are saying that Barack Obama is somehow becoming George W. Bush, or that Bush is somehow vindicated. In a town where one frequently hears ridiculous things, I’ve rarely heard anything more ridiculous than this. What Obama laid out in his Oval Office address Wednesday is, within the context of war-waging, pretty much the polar opposite of what Bush did, the antithesis of shock and awe.
This is not necessarily to say it stands a better chance of success—the dice have to come up seven about 20 times in a row for Obama’s plan to work. But if somehow it does, it would offer a new model for how to engage in the world’s most volatile region and reduce its sectarian strife.
What Obama wants to do boils down to two goals. The first concerns Iraq, where he wants to roll the Islamic State back through means both military and diplomatic. The military means include first and foremost U.S. airstrikes on ISIS positions, with the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga doing the work on the ground. The diplomatic means involve, of course, getting new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to assemble a truly representative government, one that gives Sunni leaders an actual share of power and makes regular Sunnis feel more invested in their nation-state’s government than in ISIS.
Of these two, the diplomatic part will probably be much harder, although we don’t really know how hard the military part will be. ISIS is rich and pays its soldiers very well, but the Peshmerga are tough fighters, as we just saw in Erbil, and the Iraqi army appears to be shaping up and at least not dropping their weapons and running as they did in Mosul. However, the Iraqi army is seen by many Sunnis as an arm of Shia Iran. And as for the diplomatic part, who knows? Al-Abadi has been prime minister for all of three days. We don’t yet know whether Tehran has him on the tight leash with which it controlled Nouri al-Maliki. There are lots of questions, lots of hurdles.
The second goal has to do with Syria, and it’s far more complex. It too involves both military and diplomatic elements, and both are much more complicated than in Iraq, which is saying something. Militarily, it’s clear that we are now throwing in with the Free Syrian Army, of which Obama has been needlessly and harmfully dismissive in the past. But the FSA is our only play. We can’t throw in with Bashar al-Assad, as some have suggested, and it seems clear that Obama is resolved not to do this.
So we will undertake airstrikes in Syria—themselves the subject of no small amount of controversy in Congress, although Obama clearly feels he has the constitutional authority to go after ISIS anywhere and everywhere because it constitutes a direct national security threat—aimed at ISIS strongholds. That part isn’t so hard. The hard part is the hope that once we’ve hit ISIS targets in eastern Syria, the FSA can go into those redoubts and gain some victories.
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