Capstones | 4.27.15
By Alan W. Dowd
some have termed “Islam’s civil war” is dizzying in its complexity: Syria, Iraq,
Libya and Yemen appear to be fracturing along sectarian fault lines. The air
forces of Egypt and the UAE are striking jihadist groups in Libya. The Syrian
government is using chemical weapons and scorched-earth tactics to cling to
power. Its opponents are using mass-murder and mutilation to build a theocratic
caliphate. Sunni jihadist groups like ISIS, al Qaeda and al Nusra are fighting with
each other, while fighting against Shiite jihadist groups like Hezbollah,
Iraq’s makeshift militias and Iran’s Quds force. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt and
the U.S. are fighting a bruising proxy war against Iranian-backed Houthis
in Yemen, while fighting alongside Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, while Iranian advisors back the Syrian government, while America’s
partners try to overthrow the Syrian government.
calls to mind Sen. Harry Truman’s observation from 1941. “If we see that
Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia; and if Russia is winning,
we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible,
although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”
Washington doesn’t have that luxury, which is why President Obama reversed
course last summer and redeployed U.S. forces to Iraq. The president’s decision
saved Iraq from disintegration. But it also put to rest any hopes that the
United States could extract itself from the Middle East, end
a quarter-century of boots-on-the-ground intervention and return to what the
realists call “offshore balancing.”
question of whether to be engaged is settled, how to be engaged and against
whom is not. Perhaps the best way to make sense of how to deal with today’s
Middle East is to borrow an example from medicine. Let’s say a patient staggers
into the hospital suffering from severe chest pain, labored breathing, mouth
abscesses and abdominal discomfort. The ER doctors would first stabilize the
patient and then start triaging his symptoms: A heart attack would take
immediate priority over lung cancer, lung cancer would have to be addressed
more substantively and quickly than a bleeding ulcer, and the abscesses would
be treated later.
same way, the United States and its allies must address the worst problems
first and then move on to tackling the region’s other pathologies.
Priority #1: Defeating ISIS and
prosecuting the war on jihadist terror
controls 34,000 square miles of
territory (an area the size of Costa Rica), commands an army larger than
Belgium’s, reigns over a population of 2
million and has a steady revenue stream (9,000 barrels of oil per day). In
other words, ISIS already is something al Qaeda never was: a bona fide terror
state in the heart of the Middle East.
If you doubt that the fight against ISIS is about protecting
America and its interests, consider
the words of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who calls on his followers to “erupt volcanoes of jihad everywhere” and “destroy
the idol of democracy.”
consider what national-security leaders have said. “The most immediate threat to U.S. national interests is
ISIL,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter concludes, using a common acronym for
the Islamic State. ISIS,
the president adds, “threatens American personnel and
facilities located in the region” and “if left unchecked…will pose a threat
beyond the Middle East, including to the United States.”
Yet the president’s actions haven’t matched his
words. The U.S. response to ISIS is not succeeding at destroying the cancer, largely
because Washington has not brought to bear the kind of kinetic force needed to
realize that objective.
The numbers tell the story. Between
August 2014 and the end of March 2015, the anti-ISIS air campaign—Operation
Inherent Resolve—hit 5,547 targets. That’s 23 targets per day. By comparison,
the 1999 air campaign over Serbia and Kosovo averaged 138 strike sorties a day.
During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the coalition conducted 1,600
strike/attack sorties per day. At the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003,
the coalitioncarried out 1,700 air sorties and
missile launches against Saddam Hussein’s regime—on a single day. And
last fall, the Syrian air force conducted 210 airstrikes in
the span of 36 hours.
Max Boot of the
Council on Foreign Relations notesthat it took 75 days for the U.S. military to topple the Taliban regime in
Afghanistan. In that span of time, U.S. warplanes flew 6,500
strike sorties and dropped 17,500 munitions (86 strike sorties
per day). In the first 76 days of Operation Inherent Resolve, “the United States conducted only 632 airstrikes and dropped only
1,700 munitions in Iraq and Syria” (eight strike sorties per day).
There are 4,500 U.S. troops in Iraq. To do what the president
has vowed to do—“degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS—military experts say
10,000 to 25,000 troops are needed: forward air controllers to call in sustained
airstrikes, embedded Special Operations forces to assist Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers
in clearing territory, and heavy ground units to hold territory, smother
jihadist flare-ups, backstop the Iraqi military and support the Iraqi
Bush’s “global war on terror” was too broad, we now know President Obama’s war
on “core al Qaeda” was too narrow.
There are 41 jihadist-terror
groups in 24
countries today—up from 21 groups in 18 countries in 2004.
ISIS, it pays to recall, is a reconstituted, rebranded
strain of al Qaeda in Iraq, which was decimated by the U.S. surge. Other offshoots of “core al Qaeda”—based in
Pakistan—can be found in Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Tunisia, Libya, Mali, India, Somalia and the Philippines. ISIS itself has affiliates in
Afghanistan, Libya and Nigeria.
As Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense
Intelligence Agency, argues, “We have to energize every element of national
power…to effectively resource what will likely be a multigenerational
With the president focused on “nation-building here at home,”
Flynn’s counsel is not being heeded.
Priority #2: Ensuring the security
of Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey
in Iraq—fueled by the metastasizing civil war in Syria—has triggered a cascade
of crises that affect the security and stability of America’s most important regional
allies: Saudi Arabia is building a massive wall along its Iraq border. Jordan has
been drawn into a dangerous and destabilizing military campaign. Turkey is on
edge. Israel has carried out preemptive strikes in Syria. ISIS nearly overran
Baghdad. Iran has been empowered and elevated.
ISIS will go a long way toward helping America’s regional allies feel more
secure. But any semblance of security gained from an ISIS defeat will be lost
if a) the Syrian civil war continues, b) Iran joins the nuclear club or c) Iran
emerges as the regional hegemon.
civil war is now on par in length and lethality with the Balkan wars of the
1990s. Bashar Assad should not be permitted to remain in power. But
Washington’s “Assad must go” solution to Syria died the moment the president
agreed to Moscow’s plan to disarm Assad, which elevated him from an
international pariah into an indispensable partner in the disarmament process. (This
breakthrough deal achieved, at best, dubious results: Assad’s army has continued to use chemical
a grim reality that Washington is looking the other way—and Damascus is getting
out of the way of U.S. warplanes—as these two enemies fight their common enemy,
albeit by very different means.
expanding reach explains why Sunni Saudi Arabia has signaled that it will match whatever Shiite Iran does on
the nuclear front, why the Saudis are hitting
back at Tehran in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and the global oil market, and why
Israel and Saudi Arabia are exploring ways to address a nuclear Iran. This freelancing on the part of longtime U.S.
allies is at least partly a function of U.S. policies: The president drew a red
line in Syria but then failed to enforce it. He supported the Mubarak
government in Egypt, then the anti-Mubarak protestors, then Morsi’s democratic
revolution and then Sisi’s autocratic counterrevolution. And his nuclear deal
with Iran was a surrender of his own position.
Middle East is one of the hardest-hearted areas in the world,” Churchill
observed. “Your friends must be supported with every vigor...At present our
friendship is not valued, and our enmity is not feared.”
Priority #3: Checking Iran
The administration may
believe Iran can be normalized and “brought in from the cold.” But the regime
in charge in Tehran is so at odds with the United States on so many issues that
the risks and negatives of any rapprochement far outweigh the hoped-for
benefits and positives.
Islamic Republic of Iran is a revolutionary regime that seeks to upend the
regional order. Thus, it uses terror as a tool of statecraft, bankrolls Hezbollah,
supports proxies in Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain, threatens to close the Strait of
Hormuz, props up Assad, arms Afghan insurgents, and games the IAEA.
or later, Tehran’s advance must be reversed. Toward that end, the nuclear deal
should be scuttled. As Henry Kissinger
observes, “Nuclear talks with Iran began as an
international effort…to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option.
They are now an essentially bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability through an agreement that
sets a hypothetical limit of one year on an assumed breakout. The impact of
this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.”
If we think a non-nuclear Iran is difficult to handle,
imagine what a nuclear Iran will be like.
Priority #4: Nurturing freedom
book “Conservative Internationalism,” Henry Nau argues that promoting freedom
has always been a main tenet of American foreign policy, and must remain so.
But Nau contends that Washington should use its resources “to spread freedom on
the borders of existing freedom.”
and Israel are the region’s islands of freedom, Iraq is at best an outcropping or
atoll of freedom. Still, Iraq’s freedom experiment carries huge symbolic
significance (see Baghdadi’s statements above and Tehran’s actions). But
keeping Iraq within the borders of freedom is only part of the challenge. To
attack the most persistent pathology in the Middle East, Washington must
encourage freedom-oriented reforms by building on the strengths of each
example, Jordan’s King Abdullah is the most liberalized monarch in the
region—and arguably the most legitimate in the eyes of his subjects. Consider
how the Arab Spring revolts bypassed Jordan. Although Jordan has work to do on
press freedom and legislative powers, it ranks in the top 10 globally on economic freedom and has a growing commitment to
the rule of law. Washington’s focus should be on these areas.
is not an independent state, yet the Kurdish Regional Government of northern Iraq has embraced
democratic governance and is committed to building an “economically free area.” That should be a model for the rest of
Iraq. And perhaps postwar, post-ISIS Iraq can become a model for postwar,
nobody’s perfect in the region, there’s a piecemeal patchwork pointing the way
toward a freer, healthier Middle East. The long-term challenge is to preserve
freedom where it has taken root and to give it room to grow elsewhere.
The UAE’s politics is shaped by regime selections rather than popular
elections. Similarly, Qatar remains an autocracy that constrains political
activity, civil society and individual freedoms. However, both boast high
levels of economic freedom. Properly incubated, that can serve as a contagion
for political freedom.
Capstones is the publication of the Sagamore Institute Center for America's Purpose, where Dowd researches and writes on America's role in the world.