Shadow Government

Will Ash Carter’s Confirmation Hearing Reveal Obama’s Syria Strategy?

In his State of the Union address last month President Barack Obama called on Congress “to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL,” using another name for the so-called Islamic State. Now he is asking the Senate to ratify his ...

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In his State of the Union address last month President Barack Obama called on Congress “to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL,” using another name for the so-called Islamic State. Now he is asking the Senate to ratify his appointment of Ash Carter to be the next Secretary of Defense.

Before members of Congress affirm that they are “united in this mission” in the manner in which President Obama is directing it, they need to better understand his strategy in the region. Carter’s confirmation hearing is a perfect venue to seek clarification.

Congress needs answers to two vital questions.

“What is the Mission?”

President Obama asserts that the United States’ goal is to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” Then what? Assuming that we accomplish that formidable task, who governs the territory in Syria now controlled by the Islamic State?

Do we hand it back to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad? Or is Obama banking on Iran ushering Assad out after we reach an agreement on their nuclear program? Even though President Obama has repeatedly asserted that Assad must go, he refuses to embrace the goal of regime change. If Assad is not replaced, would we be on the hook for building an entirely new nation in the portion of Syria from which we hope to displace the Islamic State?

If the Iraq War taught us anything it is that winning the peace is far more difficult than defeating the enemy in battle. The president’s failure to leave Iraq in a manner that secured the peace is the reason we are back in Iraq. It is imperative that we have a better plan this time around.

“Do We Have Adequate Resources to Achieve The Mission?”

Was President Obama’s declaration that the United States would not supply ground troops motivated by sound military doctrine or simply to provide a political fig leaf differentiation from the war in Iraq against which he railed in order to win the presidency? His justification for not needing American troops was because our strategy of supporting partners is one we have “successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” Given the upheaval in Yemen, this hardly seems convincing. Will America be able to train enough “moderate rebels” quickly enough to achieve whatever goal we seek to achieve?

President Obama made it very clear during his time in the U.S. Senate and his first campaign for president that the 40 nations assembled in the “coalition of the willing” was “unilateral” action. Even though we are not requiring coalition partners to have “boots on the ground” it does not appear that we have achieved “the broadest coalition” for this mission.

Whether or not President Obama will be able to assemble as robust of a coalition as was gathered by President George W. Bush is not the relevant question. The question is whether the coalition is big enough to accomplish the goal? Can such a coalition be assembled without America showing the commitment of boots on the ground? What is the president’s plan to engage Turkey as an equal partner in this action on its doorstep?

Our engagement in this region has taught us that stability requires more resources than one initially thinks. Many judge that the Bush administration underestimated the size of force required to ensure stability in Iraq following the invasion. The fact that we are back in Iraq is proof that the Obama administration miscalculated the resources required to preserve the hard won gains we had previously achieved.

Our recent military actions have also taught us that there is a limit to the patience of the American public. While they may have been supportive of action against the Islamic State at the start, over time they will be wondering why we are not yet done with this task.

If we stumbled back to Iraq due to public outcry over gruesome videos, we are prone to succumb to public pressure to withdraw without having accomplished our objectives. To avoid this outcome, it seems imperative that our actions should be geared towards accomplishing the mission as expeditiously as possible.

Unity against the Islamic State requires a comprehensive mission and the resources necessary to achieve it. The Obama administration would be wise to provide their answers to outstanding questions before asking Congress to endorse their course of action. Hopefully Carter’s hearing will provide clarity of what the administration perceives success means in Syria and how it intends to achieve it.

 Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Mark R. Kennedy is president of the University of North Dakota, author of "Shapeholders: Business Success in the Age of Activism," a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, was senior vice president and treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's), was a member of the Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiation under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and led George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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