Belmont Club

Writing on the Wall

Much of today’s commentary revolves around the president’s inability to articulate a policy towards ISIS. The president was pressed in Estonia to outline his plans amid multiple crises,  especially in the aftermath of Steven Sotloff’s decapitation.  In an article headlined “Commitments on 3 Fronts Test Obama’s Foreign Policy,” the New York Times captures the dilemmas the president is facing.

WASHINGTON — In vowing in Estonia on Wednesday to defend vulnerable NATO nations from Russia, President Obama has now committed the United States to three major projections of its power: a “pivot” to Asia, a muscular presence in Europe and a new battle against Islamic extremists that seems likely to accelerate.

American officials acknowledge that these commitments are bound to upend Mr. Obama’s plans for shrinking the Pentagon’s budget before he leaves office in 2017. They also challenge a crucial doctrine of his first term: that the use of high technology and only a “light footprint” of military forces can deter ambitious powers and counter terrorists.

How, the article implicitly asks, is Obama going to take on three fronts and shrink the armed forces at the same time?  No one has the answer to that head scratcher, but the president’s supporters are trying to interpolate one.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones argues that Obama’s statements have been so incomprehensible of late because the world is a complicated place:

I should add that nobody on the planet — not even John McCain! — knows how to destroy ISIS. Everybody wants some kind of magic bullet that will put them out of business without committing any ground troops, but nobody knows what that is. So until one of the blowhard hawks comes up with an actual plan that might actually work, I’ll stick with Obama’s more cautious approach. I figure he’ll do something, but only when politics and military strategy align to provide a plausible chance of success.

As for Russia, Drum asks: what is all this talk about gray areas? The president has been clear-cut and decisive. “In fact Obama’s statement was unusually straightforward. He said the same thing he’s been saying for months about Ukraine, and it’s really pretty clear.”

  • We are committed to the defense of NATO signatories.
  • Ukraine is not part of NATO, which means we will not defend them militarily.
  • However, we will continue to seek a peaceful settlement; we will continue to provide military aid to Ukraine; and we will continue to ratchet up sanctions on Russia if they continue their aggression in eastern Ukraine.

It’s clear in the way an eviction notice is clear; so clear it apparently means: Kiev is on its own.

Vox also tries to read the tea leaves. Zack Beauchamp argues that with respect to ISIS, what Obama is trying to convey is hard.   “Obama’s rhetoric on ISIS is confused because his administration’s policy on ISIS is confused by internal contradictions. On the one hand, Obama really does have long-term ambitions to destroy ISIS. On the other hand, he recognizes that this is impossible in the near term, and that the best the US can do is lay the groundwork for ISIS’ eventual collapse. This essential tension in American objectives explains why Obama’s rhetoric and actual policy on the group are so at odds.”

So the US is hoping that political pressure on Baghdad, and support for some kind of political resolution in Syria, can lay the groundwork for Iraqis and Syrians to do what’s ultimately necessary to root out ISIS on their own. The current military effort campaign is designed to temporarily weaken ISIS and buttress the political process.

That’s the nice way of describing the policy. A harsher, but still accurate, description is that Obama strategy boils down to nudging Iraqis and Syrians to decide, on their own, to take the hard but necessary steps to solve this on their own. But since this depends so much on local actors cooperating — and a seemingly magical end to the Syrian civil war — there’s nothing like a guarantee that it’ll succeed.

In either reading, this is a reasonable strategy. It is controversial, and there’s nothing that ensures it’ll work, but it’s something. So that’s why it’s so problematic to see Obama’s comments this week suggesting that the US has a very different, much more aggressive strategy of seeking to “degrade and destroy” ISIS. Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on Wednesday that the US will follow ISIS “to the gates of Hell” did not help.

Obama’s policy is really a coherent strategy.  So coherent even Beauchamp has to make a considerable effort to figure out what it means, like someone trying to follow a mathematical proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem.

We public dunces, of course, have simple-mindedly focused on the seeming contradiction between Obama’s vow to destroy ISIS and his determination to manage it. The Hill writes:

The Pentagon on Wednesday sought to clear up confusion over whether the U.S. goal against terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was to “destroy” ISIS also referred to as ISIL, or manage it, after the president said he wanted to do both in a speech in Estonia.

“Our objective is clear, and that is to degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq but also the region and to the United States,” said Obama said earlier Wednesday.

However, he later added, “if we are joined by the international community, we can continue to shrink ISIL’s sphere of influence, its effectiveness, its financing, its military capabilities to the point where it is a manageable problem.”

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said later, “It’s actually both. And I know that sounds a little bit strange to hear.”

Kirby said the U.S. can militarily degrade, disrupt and destroy ISIS “targets” in Iraq but cannot militarily destroy ISIS itself.

Got that? It’s an easy concept to grasp once you realize that an agreement with someone is required in the end game. Since you can’t make agreements with dead men, one must both destroy ISIS and manage them.  As European diplomats warned the Sri Lankans when they were about to annihilate the Tamil Tigers: “if you defeat the Tigers, who are you going to negotiate with?” Oh the advantages of an education.

Unfortunately Patrick Poole, writing at the PJ Tatler, is singularly unable to understand the deep strategy behind the administration’s support of groups allied with ISIS in Syria and why the administration would help the enemy:

As the Obama administration struggles to address the threat from ISIS and plans to go to Congress in coming weeks to up its commitment against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, multiple media reports indicate that the US-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) is operating openly with ISIS and other designated terrorist groups. And yet financial and military support for the FSA is the keystone to the administration’s policy in Syria.

Poole cites a litany of sources to suggest that the boundary between the FSA and ISIS was a nebulous one. He adds, “As if more evidence were needed, it should be noted that American journalist James Foley, who was beheaded by ISIS several weeks ago, reportedly came into ISIS custody when the FSA-aligned Dawood Brigade that kidnapped and held Foley pledged allegiance to ISIS and delivered him to ISIS as a token of their submission.”

However that may be, it’s simple-minded concepts like “enemy” that are the problem. Poole simply cannot think except in these categories [irony alert]. Now in wartime, alliances of convenience and games of double-cross are unavoidable. Factions often enter into temporary arrangements with people they will later fight.   Yet Poole is right to observe  the essential shapelessness of the administration’s policy. He can’t tell Who’s On First and lights on the problem that neither Drum nor Beauchamp can come to grips with.

When you lead from the front, you control the coalition. When you lead from behind, the coalition controls you. This indecision can be disguised under the pose of “sophistication” or “nuance,” where you claim to adapt your behavior to the “context.” But it is really a euphemism for spinelessness. When you’re not in charge, someone else is.  Since Obama has declined to take charge, someone else has. Because in the last analysis, no game theoretic and certainly no war can have meaning unless it defines at least two terms: us and them.

This explains why everything is so confusing. Why nothing makes sense to lesser mortals.  Without a course of his own to steer, Obama’s ship of state seems blown this way and that by every puff of wind.  Don’t worry that he’s relinquished the stick and rudder of the airplane to the foe, because he has the trim wheel firmly in hand.  Yet if you can’t explain policy even to your supporters, there’s a good chances the policy is actually inexplicable. This is a possibility Obama’s most ardent supporters cannot admit. It is pitiful to watch them reduced to deciphering hieroglyphics on a wall. They’ll be damned if they can understand it, but assume it says something profound.

The public likes to think that the utterances of kings and presidents are weighty. As the NYT noted over a century ago, “it makes little difference whether an obelisk stands in Central Park or on the plain where Heliopolis once was, the observer wonders what the message of the hieroglyphs is. Such a stupendous monument and such infinite pains taken in the carving of the enigmatical characters must, one naturally thinks, portend a message of great importance.” Yet in truth many inscriptions turned out to be merely trivial, bombastic or verbose statements.

Maybe Obama’s pronouncements are noise. If they are, one can only hope we realize it first, before archaeologists of the far future poking through the ruins of our civilization sadly conclude: “That’s it? That’s it? That’s it???”


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