Ron Radosh

Obama's New 'Strategy': Will It Work? And How will Republicans Respond?

Dressed marvelously in a tan suit, Obama confessed at a recent press conference that “we don’t have a strategy” for dealing with ISIS/ISIL.  Now he appears to have come up with one. As a New York Times report by Helene Cooper explains:

President Obama escalated the American response to the marauding Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on Friday, recruiting at least nine allies to help crush the organization and offering the outlines of a coordinated military strategy that echoes the war on terror developed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, more than a decade ago….Mr. Obama said the effort would rely on American airstrikes against its leaders and positions, strengthen the moderate Syrian rebel groups to reclaim ground lost to ISIS, and enlist friendly governments in the region to join the fight.

Having ineptly handled  his earlier press conference, the president clearly wants to be viewed as being at the top of his game by leading a new international effort to confront these radical Islamists. His goal now is “to degrade and ultimately defeat ISIL,” in the same manner as the U.S. had gone after al-Qaeda. This, he says, can be accomplished without the use of U.S. combat troops.

The strategy is based on expanded air power and bombings, while trying to help the anti-ISIS forces on the ground composed of elements of the supposed “moderate” Free Syrian Army, Iraqi government and Shia military forces opposed to the Sunni extremists, and the Kurdish Peshmerga, while avoiding having U.S. armed troops fighting on the ground. Among his coalition partners would not only be the Western powers, but Jordan, the Gulf States and the Saudis who would finance it. The administration’s offer of $500 million to train and support supposedly vetted moderates from the Free Syrian Army seems rather paltry and hardly sufficient for the necessary tasks ahead. Also problematic is the administration’s belief that there are any truly moderate anti-Islamist groups large and strong enough to  make a difference.

Writing in the Washington Post, Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general and commander of the U.S. Army War College, argues that the newly advanced strategy is not sufficient to do the job of destroying ISIS. Scales argues for the need to adopt the strategy introduced in Iraq by the former chief of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command, General Stanley McChrystal. It is based on “substituting skill, information and precision for mass, maneuver and weight of shell.” It was first used after Sept. 11, 2001, when Special Forces units worked with the Afghan Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban with precision air strikes overhead teamed with trained and proven ground fighters who would kill “much larger aggregations of enemy” while minimizing the death of friendly forces and civilians.

The opposite of “shock and awe” used at the start of the war against Saddam Hussein by Donald Rumsfeld, it is based on hard intelligence from informants, NSA surveillance, and careful planning and rehearsals for military action. By using intelligence to assist the troops doing the fighting, and armed and unarmed drones, they can, as Scales writes, “obliterate the enemy in the dead of night.”

But, he writes,  Obama is not yet willing to undertake a “scaling-up of the method, never attempted before.” As of now, ISIS is well-armed, controls a huge amount of territory, and we do not have ready the men and military equipment that can do the job, including an enlarged group of fighters, advanced and superior equipment available only to the Special Operations Command, and many more drones.

His main point is correct:

The Islamic State cannot be defeated by diplomacy, sanctions, coalitions or political maneuverings. Its fighters must eventually be killed in large numbers, and Americans will never allow large conventional military forces to take them on. The butcher’s bill would simply be too large. The only sure means for defeating the group is with a renewed, expanded and overwhelming legion of capable special fighters who have learned through painful trial and error how to do the job.

Will Obama do what is necessary? And if he finally decides that he must undertake a vast expansion of the war against ISIS, will he do it without a congressional resolution supporting U.S. escalation, which many in Congress are demanding? The argument for congressional authorization stems from the early days of the Vietnam War’s expansion, when without such a declaration, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution authorizing a response to an attack on U.S. ships from North Vietnamese boats was used by LBJ as an excuse for massive U.S. escalation.

Former Senator Joseph Lieberman, writing in the Wall Street Journal, argues that such a resolution is not necessary. The Constitution, as he reads it, gives the commander-in-chief the “inherent power to make war,” especially since the enemy is not waiting to advance and fight.

Harry S. Truman, when using the cloak of a UN “police action,” brought the U.S. into action against the North Korean forces seeking to overthrow the U.S. ally South Korea. The old-Right Republicans, led by Ohio Senator Robert A. Taft (“Mr. Republican”), opposed Truman for not going to Congress and asking for a declaration of war, and condemned his ordering American troops to fight in Korea. Taft said that Truman’s intervention “violated all the precedents which have been established as to the limitations of the President’s power to make war,” and was “an absolute usurpation of authority by the President.”

The similarity between Taft’s position and that taken today by Rand Paul, as well as many libertarians and the paleoconservatives at The American Conservative magazine, is worth noting. No wonder the self-proclaimed non-interventionists at antiwar.com, like Justin Raimondo, who calls the recent events a “manufactured conflict,” are furious at an important article by Sebastian Payne and Robert Costa.

Writing in the Washington Post, Payne and Costa note that the events surrounding ISIS and the debate over how to deal with them have “prompted a sudden shift in Republican politics, putting a halt to the anti-interventionist mood that had been gaining credence in the party.” Now there is a “near-universal embrace of stronger military actions against the group that has beheaded two American journalists.” They refer to a new “hawkish tone” among Republican candidates, especially those running in battleground states. It is, they say, evident that many conservative activists now are calling “for a more muscular U.S. foreign policy.”

This is reflected in calls for a tough response to ISIS, standing up to Vladimir Putin for his aggression against Ukraine, as well as demanding that the Obama administration firmly stand by Israel’s side. It reflects, they quote Brian Walsh a former spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Committee as saying, “the mood of most Americans who are angry at what they’re seeing.” As Bill Kristol put it, Republicans are no longer going to be intimidated by anti-interventionist libertarians. They are, Kristol added, returning to their “inner hawkishness.”

Now, even Rand Paul is asking that Obama explain to the nation and Congress why ISIS is a real threat, and only argues that he should seek congressional authorization to defeat ISIS militarily. The last time Obama pondered whether to seek a vote before striking Syria, he pulled back out of fear that like Cameron in Britain, he would be defeated and stymied.  Now, many Republicans like Senate candidates Scott Brown and Tom Cotton, as well as possible presidential candidate Rick Perry, have put themselves firmly on the interventionist side of the issue.

This surely will have an impact in 2016.  If the trend continues, Hillary will face not an isolationist, but a Republican on the hawkish side of the debate.  To argue from a non-interventionist position at this time would produce only failure for any Republican candidate.

More: 

Arab League Says It Will Support U.S. Effort Against ISIS