How To Rescue Iraq From Obama’s Folly

Only US troops as part of an international force can halt ISIS in its tracks as its influence spreads due to the President’s disastrous policies

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Strategic patience? Displaced Iraqis, fleeing the ISIS advance into Ramadi, cross the Euphrates into Baghdad (photo: Haydar Hadi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The captures of the strategically significant city of Ramadi in Iraq and the historically significant Palmyra in Syria together represent a symbolic success for ISIS. Losing them to a force that President Obama last year dismissed as minor-league players should serve as a wake-up call to the West. The consequences of Obama’s inaccurate assessment are clear. ISIS augmented their battlefield victory by launching the Turkish-language magazine Constantinople. It is yet another addition to their sophisticated propaganda campaign. They have joined a list of state and non-state actors exploiting a period of weak American leadership in order to redraw the map of the world through asymmetric warfare. In the case of ISIS it has been trying to open up buried faultlines in the countries bordering its self-declared caliphate — Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Now ISIS is starting to extend their influence across North Africa. Obama’s lacklustre response was to reiterate that he still does not “yet have a complete strategy”, a point he made 10 months earlier. In reality the problem is not an absence of strategy but a strategy that is failing disastrously and which the White House refuses to change.

Under Obama’s stewardship, the post-Cold War international order has started to unravel, bringing anarchy in its wake. When Obama came to office in 2009 it would have been unimaginable that a caliphate could be allowed to thrive in the midst of the Middle East or that a US president would be foolish enough to try to exploit ancient Persian and Arab enmity for the purposes of American retrenchment. Obama’s now familiar refrain is to counsel “strategic patience” while suggesting that America cannot solve every world problem. He remains oblivious to the fact that his worldview is the problem. ISIS has created a vision of the future which Obama appears unable to grasp. Its caliphate is being sustained through the mass murder and repression of those who do not belong.

It is clear that ISIS is neither an outgrowth of al-Qaeda nor the next step in its development. Elements of the media have been peddling the inaccurate characterisation of ISIS as simply a new extremist group whose brutality even al-Qaeda finds excessive. Such a viewpoint explains Obama’s strategy of containment; it suggests that ISIS’s brutality will ultimately cause its demise because it must be at odds with popular sentiment on the ground. Osama bin-Laden prioritised Saudi Arabia and America. In contrast, al-Qaeda in Iraq and now ISIS made the extermination of Shia Muslims a priority. In other words, ISIS is neither a reaction to Western action nor primarily concerned with the West.

ISIS understood from the outset that targeting Shiites and then Kurds would give it significant appeal to Sunni Arabs in Iraq and around the Persian Gulf. Where bin-Laden tried to rally Muslims by attacking America, ISIS has created popular support by killing Shiites, Kurds and Christians. There are more than 20 million Sunnis in Syria and Iraq, a large number of whom are now actively or passively cooperating with ISIS and who would presumably take up arms to resist Kurdish, Shia or American domination. In this light it remains hard to suggest that this is a terrorist organisation, as al-Qaeda was. Nonetheless, last September Obama drew a line of continuity between the two organisations, arguing that ISIS is “a terrorist organisation, pure and simple”. In both a strategic and ideological sense, although ISIS uses terror, it is quite unlike al-Qaeda and it requires a military and political rather than a counter-terror strategy to defeat it.

The fall of Ramadi and Palmyra within a week of each other came as a shock because the month before Iraqi forces had managed to retake Tikrit, and Western leaders believed a tide had been turned in the campaign. Now a third front is opening as Obama’s disastrous Libya intervention has paved the way for ISIS to seize ground there. A predictable pattern of semi-intervention has emerged under Obama, revealing an unwillingness to engage with the messy decisions of foreign policy. The president will not commit US ground forces to secure territory and assist local forces in the maintenance of order. Hence his reliance on limited aerial intervention in Libya, Iraq and Syria. The effect has been to create chaos on the ground and a power vacuum that is being filled by Islamist forces.

This year’s events have revealed that Obama has no will to seriously tackle ISIS. Even as Ramadi fell, the White House continued to insist on the success of its strategy. When questioned on the effectiveness of the campaign its repeated response was to offer a misleading binary choice between full-scale invasion of Iraq or its current limited strategy. Obama appeals to populist anti-war sentiment while his military activity hides the reality that his strategy is designed to contain ISIS until the next president takes over. This was perhaps explicable in political terms before his re-election as president in 2012. However, in his second term it is a cynical dereliction of moral duty and a strategic folly. Apart from an emboldened Iran, his legacy in the Middle East may well be the establishment of a caliphate and a region on the brink of sectarian war. It is fast approaching the point at which a failure by the US to engage seriously with the threat from ISIS cannot be reversed.

The White House’s real military commitment can be measured quite starkly. In the month before Ramadi fell, the US flew 165 air strike sorties. To put this in perspective, the US flew almost that many every day during the Kosovo campaign of the late 1990s. Operation Desert Storm saw 42,600 strike sorties in a little over a month. Even by Obama’s own parameters for engagement he is doing very little. It is hardly surprising that the situation on the ground is deteriorating. Iraqi forces flee their positions because on the ground White House spin can’t obscure the advancing black flags of ISIS.

“Degrade and destroy” were the words that Obama used last September to announce his ISIS strategy. It was a surprise announcement from a president who had made clear the previous day that he had didn’t want to “put the cart before the horse”; in other words that he didn’t have a strategy. The words were meant to sound considered and decisive. The awkward use of “degrade” as a transitive verb should have signalled the lack of a logical endpoint for the strategy. This is really the key to understanding Obama’s position. He cannot express a strategy because he is not working towards a significant political endpoint for either Iraq or Syria.

The grotesque irony is that Obama, by his own measure, will leave Iraq in a worse security situation than when he decided to pull out US troops in 2011. As he said at that time, “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” He was correct. The military surge had quelled, although not destroyed, the insurgency. In the UK and the US, the Left is quick to blame the 2003 Iraq war for the rise of ISIS, again drawing the logically flawed line of continuity from al-Qaeda in Iraq to ISIS. The rise of ISIS during former President al-Maliki’s divisive time in office was qualitatively different to the al-Qaeda in Iraq insurgency directed at the US. ISIS is fundamentally concerned with the creation of an alternative, theocratic state exploiting Sunni grievances. Today, Iraq is largely divided between Iranian influence and ISIS-controlled territory. This outcome was largely predictable and avoidable. There was no compulsion for the US to quit Iraq completely in 2011. It was Obama’s choice. Whatever chance there was for a state to emerge was stifled. The failure to follow through with a “diplomatic surge” only hastened the descent into political disenfranchisement quickly followed by sectarian violence.

It was not until the early part of this year that Obama revealed the faulty logic that underpinned his “degrade and destroy” strategy for ISIS when he said: “Ultimately these terrorist organisations will be defeated because they don’t have a vision that appeals to people. . . . ISIL can talk about setting up a new caliphate, but nobody is under any illusions that they can actually in a sustained way feed people or educate people or organise a society that would work.”

Obama had used the same linguistic constructions to express a similar faith in popular change, fuelled by social media, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arab world. This is both a temporal misunderstanding and a misreading of ISIS’s ability to function. How long is “ultimately” and how long can a state govern in an “unsustainable” way? These are questions that Obama cannot answer.

The answer seems to be that his strategy is effectively a version of containment, the US’s Cold War staple. As he sees it, the US only needs limited military involvement to prevent the spread of ISIS because it will eventually implode under the weight of its own brutality. This approach rests upon a dangerous misreading of ISIS. Like most other Western leaders, Obama has failed to understand ISIS as a politically durable entity and also the remarkable resurgence of repressive regimes in the region, even in the wake of the Arab Spring. One only has to remember the bloody suppression of the so-called “Green Revolution” in Iran after the 2009 presidential election to see the limits of popular democratic movements. Equally, Obama’s reluctance to imagine a desirable or achievable endpoint for either Iraq or Syria makes battling ISIS in a coherent way all but impossible. He does not imagine an endpoint because he is desperate to avoid the American imperialist label that bedevilled his predecessor.

It is ironic then that Obama’s folly is to project his worldview and values onto the entire region in a form of undifferentiated cultural naiveté. These were the assumptions which announced his Middle East policy in Cairo and were repeated in Jerusalem in 2013: “Four years ago, I stood in Cairo in front of an audience of young people — politically, religiously, I believe that they must seem a world away. But the things they want, they’re not so different from what the young people here want. They want the ability to make their own decisions and to get an education, get a good job, to worship God in their own way.” This may well be true for large groups of people in the Middle East (as the Arab Spring initially suggested) but not everyone has embraced Western values. Obama has confused modernisation with Westernisation because he cannot fundamentally appreciate a worldview that doesn’t ultimately end in democracy. Yet this is the one thing shared by the regimes in Tehran, Damascus and ISIS.

Obama’s fantasy about Iran becoming a thriving democracy, sharing political responsibility in the region, and his insistence that ISIS is not about Islam are not only naive but dangerous. There is no reason to assume that Iran’s return to the international fold and ensuing economic growth will lead to it becoming a democracy. There is every reason to assume that a more economically powerful Iran will pursue a nationalist agenda. Indeed, the evidence that many Iranians support a more secular state does not counter a theocracy specifically designed to resist reform. In other words, political change would probably require another popular revolution and Obama’s recent diplomacy makes that less, rather than more, likely.

Equally, ISIS has drawn considerable strength from the two interrelated acts that Obama sees as its greatest weakness. The mixture of extreme violence and the holding of territory have represented a wildly effective reengineering of both the narrative and strategy of Islamism. This is a significant contrast with al-Qaeda. Although seemingly reliant on existing jihadist tropes, ISIS’s propaganda machine inverts al-Qaeda’s narrative of Western subjugation of Islam and the caliphate as a distant, future objective. Instead, it stakes everything on current victory, the holding of territory and the declaration of a caliphate now. In that sense, Obama’s strategy of containment would actually represent a considerable victory for ISIS — de facto recognition of its territorial integrity.

ISIS’s strategy and the geographic path of its military campaign is neither random nor opportunistic. Its military strategy cannot be understood without an appreciation of its specific reworking of Islamic eschatology to exploit sectarianism. In a clever mix of political disenfranchisement and religious belief, ISIS transformed the democratic failings of Maliki and Assad’s iron rule into sectarian warfare. ISIS exploits early sectarian Islamic apocalyptic prophecies from previous conflicts in Iraq and the Levant. These resonate in today’s sectarian civil wars. As a result, ISIS has set out to reinforce its political strength by seizing religiously significant targets such as Dabiq, near Syria’s border with Turkey. For ISIS this will be the site of its supremacy over “Rome” (a synonym for the West) before going on to conquer Constantinople. Equally, Kobane’s importance to ISIS is a reflection of eschatological writing.

The fall of Ramadi and Palmyra should leave no doubts about ISIS’s military capability and its ability to operate on multiple fronts. It should be abundantly clear that America’s military strategy for dealing with ISIS has failed.

However, there are possible strategies for dealing with ISIS but they would require the US to increase its presence on the ground. Both strands of Obama’s current strategy should be abandoned. “Degrade” is too vague and “destroy” is too ambitious. The West’s strategy should be to defeat ISIS in much the same way that al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated by 2011. In practical terms, this would mean that ISIS lost the ability to hold and administer territory and was, at worst, a small terrorist organisation with limited reach.

The point of a deeper understanding of ISIS is to acknowledge that it is possible to engage it with conventional military force. Because its military objectives are governed by religious and territorial imperatives its likely military response is more predictable than al-Qaeda’s insurgency ever was. Without territorial integrity ISIS loses its self-proclaimed basis for legitimacy and would be forced to fight to maintain it.

Disaggregation of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq should be the first step in such a strategy. For those who remember US military neologisms, “Af-Pak” was the last unsuccessful attempt to unify a theatre of operations around an existential threat. In this sense Obama’s implicit “Iraq first” approach is correct. First, it delegitimises ISIS’s internal logic. Second, it recognises that although the threat from ISIS is unified the situations in Iraq and Syria are each unique and require very different strategies. Containment of ISIS’s land grabs in Iraq and Syria makes no sense. Containment and parallel attempts to broker peace in what is effectively a civil war in Syria make much more sense. Currently, the Assad regime views the Western powers, rather than ISIS, as its primary antagonist. This means the US bombing campaign there is supporting an incoherent political strategy. A concentration of US power against ISIS in Iraq might force Assad and his Iranian backers to change their calculus and start fighting ISIS with a fervour currently reserved for other opposition forces.

Obama’s now infamous policy of “leading from behind” has seen him foolishly resuscitate elements of another Cold War strategy: the Nixon doctrine. Nixon’s innovation was to get Vietnam to take over its war from the US. It was a strategy replicated in the Middle East through pre-revolutionary Iran. Last December, Obama made clear that he wished to see Iran become a “very successful regional power”. The difference being that post-revolutionary Iran remains a theocracy, vocally opposed to America and her allies and decisively able to stamp out popular dissent. Yet again, Obama seems to believe appeasement will inevitably, inexplicably, lead to democracy in Tehran.

As America washes its hands of responsibility in the Middle East it has effectively resuscitated Tehran’s dreams of regional power. Indeed, one of the primary complicating factors in Syria and Iraq has been that US reluctance to use its own troops on the ground has led to a reliance on Iranian forces and Iran-backed Shia militias. This common thread draws the two conflicts further together and has enabled Iran to extend its hegemony over Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut and Sanaa. US reluctance to act in Syria is largely out of concern that Shia militias in Iraq might retaliate. America urgently needs to reduce its reliance on Iranian forces. Obama’s personal mission to conclude nuclear negotiations with Tehran only reinforces the extent to which Tehran can limit American action. The humanitarian consequences of Iranian support are clear in Tikrit. Shia militias are preventing the return of displaced residents while systematically destroying the city. It is incomprehensible why America is pursuing the same strategy for retaking Ramadi, simply transferring territory from ISIS to Iranian control

America faces the dilemma in Syria either of pursuing the politically unthinkable U-turn of supporting Assad or arming rebels who may or may not prove to be moderate or militarily decisive. ISIS’s current success might have opened a slim window of possibility. Both Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran share an interest in defeating ISIS before it reaches their own borders. Their mutual balance of weakness would not enable a formal deal between them but might allow a ceasefire among their Syrian proxies in order to focus efforts on ISIS. A government of national unity might be brokered that balanced power between Sunni and Shia. Assad’s regime looks increasingly fragile. His Iranian and Russian sponsors are negotiating his exile with the West, in order to bolster their own strategic positions. Despite his apparent war crimes, Assad’s personal fate matters less than the stability of Syria.

The primary focus of the US should be on Iraq, regardless of whether a ceasefire is achievable in Syria or Iran is forced to deal with ISIS in Syria unilaterally. The only way to defeat ISIS is with a ground force that will clear and then secure and rebuild currently occupied territory. Clearing ISIS from areas it holds is necessary but insufficient to prevent their return. The areas have to be rebuilt, repopulated and secured. ISIS’s operations in Iraq and Syria can be divided by a physical force that enters at Kobane. From here it would make sense to exploit ISIS’s weakest physical links between Raqqa and northern Aleppo along the upper Euphrates. Not only will this physically destroy claims to a caliphate but a divided ISIS force will be easier to defeat operationally. Equally the US has to increase the tempo of its air operations. The current level is too limited to have a meaningful effect on a disciplined military force. Furthermore, a recent special forces conference in the US identified the areas of military deficiency in Iraq: a dearth of drones, a lack of intelligence on the enemy’s networks and counter-IED technologies, and no clear narrative to push back against the group’s messaging.

The most immediate way to deal with this is for Obama to lift the prohibition on American boots on the ground and start providing proper assistance to the Iraqis. Iraqi troops would benefit from combat advisers in the form of special forces, and forward air controllers would improve the accuracy of airstrikes. The US Joint Special Operations Command was remarkably efficient between 2003 and 2010 both in gathering and acting on intelligence. It was a significant factor in the successful campaign against al-Qaeda. There is every reason to believe it could achieve the same against high-level ISIS leadership even if it was simply providing the intelligence-gathering and analysis for Iraqi special forces to act upon.

Current estimates of effective force sizes range from 10,000 (according to former head of Central Command General Anthony Zinni) to 25,000 (according to military analyst Fred Kagan). These are relatively modest numbers, compared to the peak of 176,000 coalition forces during the second Iraq War. However, the US is not a suitable unilateral force both because of domestic opposition and also due to the need for regional political legitimacy, which America does not carry by itself. A multinational force would need to consist of the US in partnership with Arab and Western states.

Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that Iraq’s principal problem is political and that a military solution cannot be sensibly pursued without support in nation-building. The endpoint has to be a state that has enough stability to function and can satisfy differing sectarian interests.

There is no reason why the recent ISIS victories have to signal further regional disintegration. Regardless of whether Obama agrees with his predecessor’s Middle East policies, he does have a duty to make sure he does not materially contribute to the further destabilisation of Iraq, Syria and the greater Middle East. America’s action or inaction is still materially significant.

ISIS long ago crossed over from being a symptom of existing problems in the Middle East to being a catalyst for new conflicts. It has considerably weakened the notion that statehood yields security, a condition traditionally reinforced by the international system. Indeed, its aim is to permanently destroy political boundaries. Part of the problem is that by using local proxies Obama has set in motion nationalist rivalries that will actually serve to break the region apart. The defeat of ISIS on the ground by a committed international or US force is relatively straightforward militarily. The harder reality to grasp is that Iraq’s stability and the continued suppression of ISIS cannot be entrusted to regional power players. Iraq and Syria’s future will require a peacekeeping force for a considerable period of time, perhaps led by the UN but ultimately backed by US military power.

The price of inaction should be obvious. ISIS is clear in its desire to start a sectarian war which would probably metastasise throughout the region. So far it is proving surprisingly adept at creating the preconditions. It has successfully established itself as a physical and symbolic rallying point for global jihad. Its online reach has been extraordinary and while the threat of terrorist export is probably limited in numerical terms, the export of an idea has a pernicious effect. The West has a vital interest in preventing its citizens going out to fight and then bringing ISIS’s destructive ideology back with them.