Shadow Government

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Awkward Questions for President Obama About Fighting the Islamic State

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an interesting article discussing the questions raised by the post-Paris air strikes conducted by France. It put me in mind of several other questions that U.S. President Barack Obama has not answered (and may not even have been asked). The main question raised in the Times piece was: ...

GettyImages-497043554_960
GettyImages-497043554_960

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an interesting article discussing the questions raised by the post-Paris air strikes conducted by France. It put me in mind of several other questions that U.S. President Barack Obama has not answered (and may not even have been asked).

The main question raised in the Times piece was: “Why, if there were confirmed Islamic State targets that could be hit without killing civilians, were they not hit more heavily long ago? And what, in fact, was being hit?” In other words, why did it take a terrorist atrocity in Paris to convince the leaders of the anti-Islamic State coalition to hit these targets? If the answer is some variant of because these targets were not worth hitting before, then why should we think that hitting them now is an efficacious response to the Islamic State’s latest attack?

This was similar to the question that arose in my mind as I read the extensive coverage of President Obama’s mocking dismissal of all of his critics and his equally strident insistence that his was the right strategy and did not need to be modified because he had seen all the alternatives proposed by critics and there was nothing new there — coupled with the news that he was announcing an “intensification” of military action in support of the strategy. It rather raised another series of questions: Why do you need to intensify the military action if your strategy is already optimal? Isn’t the change, however modest, incremental, and belated nevertheless tacit acknowledgment that your critics were right? Or at the very least, that it is worth testing whether the critics were right?

On Wednesday, the New York Times ran an interesting article discussing the questions raised by the post-Paris air strikes conducted by France. It put me in mind of several other questions that U.S. President Barack Obama has not answered (and may not even have been asked).

The main question raised in the Times piece was: “Why, if there were confirmed Islamic State targets that could be hit without killing civilians, were they not hit more heavily long ago? And what, in fact, was being hit?” In other words, why did it take a terrorist atrocity in Paris to convince the leaders of the anti-Islamic State coalition to hit these targets? If the answer is some variant of because these targets were not worth hitting before, then why should we think that hitting them now is an efficacious response to the Islamic State’s latest attack?

This was similar to the question that arose in my mind as I read the extensive coverage of President Obama’s mocking dismissal of all of his critics and his equally strident insistence that his was the right strategy and did not need to be modified because he had seen all the alternatives proposed by critics and there was nothing new there — coupled with the news that he was announcing an “intensification” of military action in support of the strategy. It rather raised another series of questions: Why do you need to intensify the military action if your strategy is already optimal? Isn’t the change, however modest, incremental, and belated nevertheless tacit acknowledgment that your critics were right? Or at the very least, that it is worth testing whether the critics were right?

Once I got thinking in this vein, a number of other questions popped up. I wonder if President Obama has good answers for them:

  • When in history has a terrorist group enjoying the territorial safe haven, the access to resources, and the global reach of the Islamic State ever been successfully “contained” in a given region?
  • Why do you mock critics for allegedly recommending what you are already doing when, in fact, your policies have only recently changed to incorporate the critics recommendations? Would not a more honorable response be to say: “Message received. You were right. We are shifting in your direction. Let’s give it time to see if it will work?”
  • Why do you emphasize the alleged reluctance of some of your current military experts to escalate in Syria when you know that other military advisors have recommended other more efficacious military options, which you have rejected?
  • For that matter, have you asked your reluctant military commanders whether their advice is influenced by their assessment that the Obama White House is so averse to decisive/costly action in the Middle East that the military will be politically abandoned by the president at the first sign of difficulty?
  • And one more on this theme. Why do you emphasize the alleged reluctance of some of your current military experts to escalate in Syria today when you know that some of those same military experts advocated more robust action earlier, which you overruled? Why are you so sure that the military advisors you say were wrong before are right now?
  • Why are you spending more scarce political capital, senior leader attention, and White House ingenuity in trying to shut down Gitmo than you are spending in trying to shut down the Islamic State?

I am prepared to believe that President Obama has reasonable answers to some of these questions. I am certainly prepared to believe that some of the criticism of his counter-Islamic State efforts is unfair. But if you compare Obama’s record on Syria overall to what the critics have been saying, the critics fare much better than Obama was willing to acknowledge in his last press conference. Maybe he needs to have another session and this time be pressed to answer some additional awkward questions.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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