Belmont Club

Here Have a Drink

The punditry struggled to find something enlightening to say about president Obama’s strategy to degrade … defeat … inconvenience … manage ISIS — whatever you want to call it — because there was almost nothing to hold on to. It remains a kind of mystery object, like the 2001 monolith, a presence sitting in the room. CNN says it’s not war. “Kerry: U.S. not at war with ISIS”.

“What we are doing is engaging in a very significant counterterrorism operation,” Kerry told CNN’s Elise Labott in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “It’s going to go on for some period of time. If somebody wants to think about it as being a war with ISIL, they can do so, but the fact is it’s a major counterterrorism operation that will have many different moving parts.”

David Corn at Mother Jones says it’s “nuanced war”. Corn writes, “but whatever he calls it, the president is attempting a difficult feat: waging a nuanced war.”

It is described as having four parts: airstrikes, increased support to allied forces on the ground, counterterrorism and humanitarian assistance — proxy war in other words, as I anticipated. The proxies haven’t signed up yet. Turkey has not yet agreed to provide bases:

Agence France Presse ANKARA: Turkey will refuse to allow a US-led coalition to attack jihadists in neighbouring Iraq and Syria from its air bases, nor will it take part in combat operations against militants, a government official told AFP Thursday.

“Turkey will not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

Germany will provide support to the Kurds (strategy item number 2) but no air strikes. “Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on Thursday Germany will not take part in US-led air strikes against Islamic extremists Isis in Syria, following US President Barack Obama’s announcement that the air campaign will be extended.” The Brits are not providing airpower either.

“We are neither being asked to do that, nor will we do it,” Steinmeier told journalists in Berlin on Thursday after meeting with his British counterpart Philip Hammond.

Military action had to be embedded in a “political strategy” to counter Isis, Steinmeier said.

Germany’s pledge to deliver weapons to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq was “not small,” he added. “That’s the right amount of responsibility for us to bear.”

Hammond also ruled out British strikes on Isis positions inside Syria.

The heavy lifting will be done by Saudi Arabia. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday: “WASHINGTON — Saudi Arabia will host a train-and-equip program for moderate Syrian fighters to combat Islamic State, Riyadh has promised in consultations with the White House. The Saudi kingdom will also fund the training, and will consider contributing military aid to the broad, US-led coalition against the Islamist group.”

And so it proved. The New York Times covered John Kerry’s arrival in Saudi Arabia to drum up Arab support. “Arab Nations Vow Help to Fight ISIS ‘as Appropriate’”.

None of the Arab participants said precisely what they would do, and it remained unclear whether any would join the United States in mounting the airstrikes.

Turkey also took part in the meetings here, but it did not sign the communiqué. A senior State Department official sought to minimize the significance of that development, saying the United States would continue to consult with Turkish officials on how to respond to the threat posed by ISIS, which has captured 49 Turkish diplomats in Iraq and held them hostage.

“We understand the challenging situation Turkey is in given their detained diplomats, and they will make the decision on what role they can play moving forward,” the official said, requesting not to be identified in accordance with the department’s rules for briefing reporters.

Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister and the only Arab official who spoke to reporters after the talks on Thursday, was the most forward-leaning.

“There is no limit to what the kingdom can provide,” Prince Saud said.

He played down Saudi Arabia’s earlier criticism of Mr. Obama’s decision to refrain from conducting airstrikes in Syria last year, after forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons.

That Arab reluctance was the discussed in the Washington Post. “Obama seeks Arab allies against Islamic State but must overcome mistrust of U.S.”  If the pundits are out in force scratching their heads, the coalition partners are damning the whole undertaking with faint praise — praise almost indistinguishable from savage recrimination.

But already there is a disinclination to believe his promises, said Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.

“We have reached a low point of trust in this administration,” he said. “We think in a time of crisis Mr. Obama will walk away from everyone if it means saving his own skin.”

Different countries are suspicious of the United States for different reasons, but all feel betrayed in some way by recent U.S. policies, said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Institute in Qatar.

The Los Angeles Times describes president Obama’s lonely search for friends. “Is Iraq’s new government the ally Obama is looking for?”

It is a Cabinet “flush with warmed-over ministers from Maliki’s government,” said Wayne White, a former Iraq analyst for the State Department now with the Middle East Institute in Washington. “It’s hardly a signal that a major change in outlook is in the offing.”

Working with Baghdad means Obama will be caught between Saudi Arabia on the one hand and Iran — as fronted by Baghdad — on the other over the fate of a disputed state. That is like enlisting a tiger to fight a lion over a carcass being ravaged by a pack of hyenas. It means you’ve got to watch it, or you’ll get bit. More importantly the hyenas, lions and tigers will have the only people on the ground.

Islamic State militants have released a stream of videos that illustrate in gory detail what they will do to anyone – Shiite, Kurdish or Sunni — who stands against them.

“ISIS is going to try to murder the leadership and their families,” Biddle said, using a common acronym for the militants. “And if that happens, the U.S. Army isn’t going to be on the ground to protect them. It’s going to have to be the Iraqi army and police.”

As I also predicted, Russia is already busy muddying the waters. “Russia blasts Obama for planned ‘act of aggression’ against ISIS as Iran and Syria warn he could trigger ‘first sparks of fire’ in the Middle East.” Russia, Syria and Iran are forming a coalition against Obama’s coalition.

The phrase “first sparks of fire” are doubtless intended by the Russians to stroke the suspicions of the American Left, whose misgivings were voiced by David Corn in Mother Jones.”Obama and the Dogs of War. Can he control them once they are unleashed? Here is President Barack Obama’s challenge: how to unleash the dogs of war without having them run wild?”  Add the dogs to the picture of the hyenas, lions, tigers and carcass.

Ralph Peters thinks the whole thing sounds like a bad joke.

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But if it’s a joke, it’s on us. As I wrote on September 7, before his speech: “My own view on the matter can be summarized in a word: Libya. Libya on a gigantic scale.”

The major danger facing the Obama administration is that this vast, Rube Goldberg coalition will malfunction and get away from them. There will be friction between the Sunni parts, and sparks between the Sunni and Shia components, and gasoline all around. Once your allies on the ground start fighting among themselves, whom do you bomb? The worst-case scenario here is that Obama will wind up spreading the trouble to Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Nothing is certain in this world. There’s always a chance that president Obama will succeed in defeating ISIS and bring peace and stability to a troubled region. But the probabilities are against it. He is playing Russian roulette with five out of six chambers loaded.

Chances are that before too long the wheels of this contraption will fall off; that it won’t be long before president Obama releases another version of his strategy to do something about ISIS, most likely as much a complete rewrite of his new policy as his old policy was a rewrite of the Bush policy.  A version 3.0 rather than 2.1. And not long after that, yet another: a 4.0 rather than a 3.1. Just as his current strategy is the opposite of his old one, so will the successors be repudiations of their predecessors.  This is a ship that is steering successive reciprocal or near reciprocal courses.

Somebody get poor Colonel Peters a drink. He’s gonna need it.


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