The secret to getting it right in the world's most volatile region is admitting when you're wrong.
- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
If there was a turning point in the presidency of George W. Bush, it came when he and his team finally accepted that their strategy in Iraq was not working and embraced the idea of the "surge." It prompted them to admit they were wrong and to adapt. This, as much as the strategy itself, was an important step forward, difficult politically, and the kind of adaptability required but not always seen in presidents.
We are at a moment ripe for such a realization and a manifestation of flexibility for President Barack Obama. As it happens, it comes at almost precisely the same moment in his presidency as it did for President Bush and it has been triggered by similar events in the same country, by the same kind of people who forced the Bush team’s course correction.
The events are not unrelated, of course. Reasonable analysts are pointing out that the roots of the instability that wracks Iraq today can be traced not only to the Bush-era invasion of Iraq but also to the only-temporary benefits won by the surge and the failure of both Bush and Obama to address the deep political flaws in the Iraqi system earlier.
But the current events in Iraq are not just a flashback. They are much more dangerous than the insurgency the Bush team eventually, and reluctantly, admitted had been gaining ground through 2005 and 2006. Because the militant extremists taking over multiple cities in Iraq represent a metastasizing of two once-distinct conflicts — that in Syria and that in Iraq — and an unprecedented threat to the entire region.
Last week in Abu Dhabi, Foreign Policy, in conjunction with the United States Institute of Peace, conducted the latest installment of our "PeaceGame" scenario programs. Conceived as "war games" about making peace, this installment, like our first event in December, was focused on Syria. The participants were senior government officials, diplomats, and experts from around the region and around the world. Unlike at our December event, however, we found we could no longer focus on Syria alone and that the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had supplanted both Bashar al-Assad and al-Nusra Front terror group as the most frequently mentioned source of concern.
Further, while we identified some potentially valuable, if incremental, strategies for making much-needed progress on humanitarian issues, the group — engaging in role-playing, simulating the positions of the most important international players in the conflict — drove straight into a ditch on political issues. Little if any progress seemed possible in Syria, as all sides — Assad and much of the fragmented opposition — felt as though they were benefitting from the current chaos. Tellingly, the only area where real action seemed possible was in gaining international cooperation to help contain violent extremism.
In a matter of a few weeks, building on gains that began to snowball after their victories in Fallujah in January of this year, ISIS has galvanized the attention and concern of all with interests in the region. It is the one group that at least on the face of it unites the national security interests of a wide range of disparate players — Iran, Assad, Maliki, the United States, Russia, Jordan, Israel, the EU, and Gulf countries. All are threatened in some way by ISIS — its growth, its sophisticated organization, its boldness, and, perhaps especially, its ability — through bank robberies, oil smuggling, extortion, kidnapping, and even taxation — to become the world’s best-financed terror group.
Recent battlefield successes that have helped ISIS capture tanks and missiles and weaponry suited to a modern army (much of it originally provided by the United States to Iraq precisely to protect the Iraqis from threats like the one they currently face) only compound the fact that this one-time al Qaeda franchisee is not your father’s terrorist group. With over 10,000 fighters and serving as a magnet for extremists worldwide (in part due to remarkably slick — not to mention chilling — communications efforts worthy of any other recent, well-financed start-up), this is the group that ought to finally have the U.S. administration arguing that the greatest threat we face does not come from core al Qaeda.
There are signs that the U.S. administration recognizes this is a watershed. So far they have responded roughly as they should have: After a few half-hearted and unpersuasive efforts to suggest this was not our problem, the president ordered naval assets into the region, 300 military advisors into Iraq, and has sent Secretary of State John Kerry to the region to help advance the kind of long-overdue political change in Iraq that is necessary to offer Sunnis a path to inclusion in their governance that the Maliki regime has systematically sought to deny them.
These are good first steps, although the resolve driving each effort as well as the overarching strategy guiding them have yet to be seen or tested. With reports Sunday of ISIS doing more to literally rewrite the borders of the Middle East by taking over official checkpoints between Iraq and Syria and Iraq and Jordan, the United States and our allies must first recognize that this is not about Fallujah or Mosul or whether or not ISIS will attack Baghdad (it would be unnecessarily risky and a diversion of assets, according to security specialists I spoke to in the region). It is about the possibility that ISIS will succeed in creating either an extremist state encompassing part of Syria or part of Iraq, and with broader designs that threaten, among others, America’s vital and loyal ally, Jordan, with whom it would share a long border. Or, alternatively, whether endless inconclusive battles between ISIS and those attempting to push it back will lead to the creation of a Somalia–like lawless region in the Middle East — a failed state that becomes a breeding ground for ills that will make the whole world suffer. (ISIS already controls or dominates territory exceeding the size of Jordan.)
Given the dimensions of the threat, the United States must actively work with whomever it can to contain and then defeat ISIS. It is not, by any means, primarily a problem for the United States and local leadership — international collaboration is required. That’s always a tall order. But it is one of those rare moments when such cooperation is possible, provided there is some flexibility about who does what. As the president and Secretary Kerry have rightly noted, this is an effort that will require political, diplomatic, military, and economic cooperation.
It is by no means a simple undertaking. For one thing, putting pressure on ISIS in Iraq could lead to just the latest illustration of the "squeezing the balloon" problem so often seen with terror groups. Tighten around them in Iraq and they may simply retreat again into Syria and wait out the current sense of urgency … while letting events in Baghdad take their course as Maliki increasingly relies on Iran (which will be easier to deal with than the United States), while shrugging off U.S. pressure to give Sunnis a voice, and doesn’t fix the political problems in his country, thus ensuring a permanent opening for Sunni champions including extremists like ISIS.
The United States, of course, has actively resisted getting involved in Syria. That has undeniably been a contributing factor to the rise of ISIS from gang of thugs to ascendant army over the past three years. In taking as long as we did to support better options like the Free Syrian Army, offering aid and not delivering it, the president resisting the good advice to be more aggressive that he got from team members like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we have managed to do the near impossible: helping the worst of both sides — ISIS and the Nusra Front on the one hand, Assad on the other — make material gains.
In fact, a cautionary factor in all this is that while it is nominally in the interest of all to stop ISIS (including bitter rivals al-Nusra Front), the rise of ISIS is paradoxically of use to some of these actors. Some of those in ISIS were, in fact, released from prison by Assad precisely because he felt it would be useful to have an enemy to battle. He has used the existence of such enemies brilliantly from a PR perspective, playing the "devil you know" strategy to perfection. He has grown stronger as they have grown stronger. This has served Iran, Assad’s ally, as has the rise of ISIS in Iraq because it has enabled Maliki to turn to the Iranians for help in protecting Shiite shrines and even has the United States gently sniffing around the possibility of some kind of tacit, wink-wink, nod-nod collaboration with its onetime enemy in Tehran.
Indeed, not only does the rise of ISIS give the Iranians cover to be more explicit in their influence over Maliki and their efforts to control Shiite Iraq, it also helps advance their cautious, incremental not-quite-rapprochement with the United States. With the region in the worst chaos in its history and Obama’s foreign-policy approval rating plummeting, they know he needs the Iran nuclear deal more than ever before. It’s the only brass ring out there for him. And since he also needs them to help out with Iraq and with managing Assad, well, let’s put it this way: They’ve got special leverage with the United States at the moment.
All this is to say that this situation is fraught with complexity. Do too little and we will soon be facing what is a genuine red line for the United States: Jordan. We could not sit by and let all or any of Jordan fall to extremists. It would be far too threatening to regional stability, to our moderate Arab allies, to Israel, and to an alliance we have cultivated and valued for decades. Be too fastidious about getting precisely the political progress we want in Iraq and we will be easily manipulated by Maliki and Iran into strengthening their partnership in ways that could lead to outcomes that might be acceptable for them — like the partitioning of Iraq — that might lead us to the ISIS-as-state or Mideast Somalia options that are so dangerous to us and to our allies in the region. Thus, we need to think a few moves ahead on this. Not all those who would work with us to help contain or defeat ISIS are actually our friends — not by a long shot.
This is a moment to put some people in a room and think through strategy and alternative scenarios for this rapidly changing region and explore what the consequences of possible actions (or inaction) by the United States and our momentary and long-term allies might produce. Just as this is a situation that is a result of several of our prior moves (invading Iraq, not working harder to keep a residual force in place in Iraq, not doing more to support the more moderate members of the Syrian opposition earlier) plus a plethora of trends and events beyond our control, so too will the future be impacted by what we decide to do here, how it turns out, and then a host of other actions by actors with divergent goals. The great lesson of the recent past of ISIS is that the cost of not dealing with the problem goes up with each passing day. But the cost of not thinking through what happens next (see Libya) is also too high to bear.
Ironically, the Obama administration has fallen into the same trap that the Bush team did midway through their time in office: They thought they could just declare victory and head home. As insurgents made gains, Bush had the courage to acknowledge that he needed to change strategy, tactics, and personnel. In 2005-2006, Bush moved his National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to the State Department and her deputy, Steve Hadley, to National Security Advisor, and improved the performance of both and their teams. He later replaced Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and dialed back the role of his vice president throughout. Bush also took a more hands-on role in dealing with the problem, engaging in weekly videoconferences with Iraq, going to meet with the chiefs in the Pentagon to discuss strategy, moving toward the problems he was having rather than denying them or moving away from them. The surge, of only temporary benefit, was just one of the benefits of this change of team and of attitude. During the last several years in office, Bush’s national security team achieved a great deal, from Africa to the emerging world to beginning to restore relationships damaged during the first term. It’s hard for political opponents of Bush to hear that. But it’s a fact and in my recent work on a book that is a history of national security decision-making during the past decade, I’ve found it is one accepted by policy professionals from both parties.
Thus far, Obama has proven more reluctant to admit errors and adapt.
While Obama’s team has had changes, its performance as a team has actually gotten worse. The past year — from indecision over Egypt to the Syria fiasco last fall, from mishandling the NSA fiasco to the Bergdahl mess to rapidly disintegrating situations in Syria, Iraq, and Libya — has been among the misstep-prone in recent national security management history — perhaps the worst since the wrong decision to go into Iraq in the first place. It has been a dog’s breakfast of indecision, lack of coordination, interagency sniping, bad press messaging, incrementalism, and failure to take responsibility. Sometimes you can be so afraid to do stupid shit, you make a mess anyway.
To revert to caricatures: Bush — famously unstudious — learned from his experience. Obama — famously the brilliant professor — now has the opportunity to show that the smartest kid in the class can learn from the inarticulate frat boy he denigrated. That will, however, require not only the courage to admit a change is needed, it will require the guts to deal with a complex situation in which there is no easy way in or out.
Foreign policy is sometimes messy and action is sometimes required even when perfect outcomes are not apparent. This is one of those times. We should push for political change in Iraq but we also must prepare and accept the reality that we should use air power and intelligence to help push them back … and we must accept that reality in both Iraq and Syria. It is now time to accelerate aid for the Free Syrian Army and humanitarian assistance because it wins hearts and minds and it is the right thing to do in the face of the catastrophe Syrians and their neighbors face. It is time to identify and work with new Sunni leaders in Iraq and in Syria, likely a task in which we support our regional allies’ efforts on the ground. We should make it clear that we will not tolerate the violation of Jordanian sovereignty … and mean it this time. We should squeeze by every means possible the sources of support ISIS has, whether from oil smuggling or from individuals in countries that are supposed to be our allies. We should work with our allies in the region to develop a long-term vision for a stabilized region — not some fantasy of Jeffersonian democracy but something that will contain the disasters that are daily befalling the Middle East. This is a partial list. Disagree with some or several of the points. But acknowledge that it is a time for action, strategy, and collaboration in equal proportions … and all in greater proportions than we have done thus far. It is time to acknowledge that what we have been doing — and what we have not been doing — is not working.