How Far is Obama Willing to Go to Defeat the Islamic State?
The president doesn't want to escalate the war against the Islamic State. So what will he do?
As terrorists multiply their attacks and increase their intensity, public discourse in the United States has grown more coarse and unproductive. Critics continue to pound U.S. President Barack Obama, so he changes the subject to Syrian refugees and calls his opponents cowards for being afraid to let women and children into the country — never mind that the public is with his critics. He has also said that criticism of his policies is succor to the Islamic State. These kinds of responses, the president seems to have decided, are better than dealing with his critics head on and engaging them in rational debate. None of this is going to help us defeat the terrorists, so maybe it is time for a reset on both sides and see what can be agreed upon.
Losing the support of the public and his party.
Attacks on Obama’s foreign policy are coming quite literally from all quarters. They are prompted by the horror of the Syrian civil war, where a dictator remains in power after a U.S. president says he has to go; the re-emergence of Russia as a great power in the Middle East; and above all, by the establishment of the barbaric Islamic State caliphate with its tentacles spreading across Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. The attacks come from Republicans, retired diplomats, and retired military, but that is not a big surprise. The public is also weighing in via polls that show majorities want more action against Islamic terrorist groups like the Islamic State, and a recent NBC News poll shows them actually supporting more troops on the ground in the Middle East — 65 percent, in fact. That is also not a surprise given Obama’s low poll numbers.
But attacks from leaders in his own party are proliferating as they begin to differ with him in public. We can guess that if Democrats like Sen. Diane Feinstein are disputing with him in public, they have likely been doing so in private for a while. We also know that Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were not on the same page regarding Syria and with her recent advocacy for possibly putting more boots on the ground to defeat the Islamic State, she, too, counts as a critic. One of the harshest Democratic critics is former Amb. Mark Ginsberg. His critique is rather bracing, as were his news media appearances. Frustration is building in Obama’s own party for him to do more to defend our interests and support the civilized world against the barbarity being loosed on it.
What the president’s critics want, he is not willing to give.
And what do his critics want? Many things, but their goals center on the United States delivering significant and highly public defeats to the Islamic State. There have always been differences among experts as to how to deal with terrorists, but now that we actually face a terrorist state that holds territory and wealth-generating resources from which it sows murder and instability among governments, a consensus is emerging that we have to take the war directly to the source and hit them where it hurts: their money and their image.
The funding they garner from the sale of oil to those willing to traffic illegally in it is a huge source of the Islamic State’s strength — more than $1 million a day by some estimates. But equally important is the image that the Islamic State has created in the minds of its supporters who cheer it on and who join in the carnage. They come to the caliphate for training in order to fight in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, while others go back to their homes, like France, to do the same. Never before has a terrorist group achieved what the Islamic State is achieving: a state with money and supporters joining it by the thousands from all over the world, including from the West. This unprecedented success is not only allowing our enemies to do real damage; this success is in the minds of some deluded and hate-filled people evidence that their religious views have the mandate of heaven and will win out in the end. Whether they are in their home countries or in the West, they are being bolstered in their cause every day that the West tolerates their existence and their assaults. These are not people who give up easily or seek compromise, not even a respite. Indeed, they don’t need a respite since they are winning. Terrorists used to be on the run and in hiding, popping up now and again to wreak havoc but having to hasten back to their hidey-holes. No more, not with this group. As long as they have that state, they are winning. And the fact that they have a state that can be hit makes Western inaction all the more frustrating.
Sailing past Scylla and Charybdis.
So, let’s be realistic and accept the fact that the irresistible force of the critics has met the immovable object of the president’s determination not to be a war president. Both the president and his critics could set aside their disagreements and work to find a common ground for the next year that can actually begin to erode the success of the terrorists. In other words, we know this commander-in-chief very well now after seven and a half years. He holds to an ideology that finds the United States and other Western powers over the centuries to be the cause and not the solution to the world’s problems. Therefore, we know that he is not going to do anything with the military that he does not absolutely have to do and that means he is not likely under any circumstances to actually do what has to be done: go to the caliphate and wipe it out. In these circumstances, the most we can expect of the United States is to perform some sort of holding action. So what should both sides be able to agree to that moves us toward the success that probably won’t come fully until the next administration?
First, the president can double down on disrupting the Islamic State’s revenue streams from the sale of oil. Experts at the Rand Corporation and other think tanks have commented on this. All relevant agencies of the U.S. government should converge on this task as we have with other malefactors before. Moreover, the president’s guidance to the military that hamstrings them by ordering them not to risk civilian lives must be amended; civilians trafficking in oil for the Islamic State should be legitimate targets. The Pentagon should continue bombing raids targeting the entire chain of illicit oil sales. U.N. resolutions, NATO actions, or just unilateral U.S. actions are all called for to break up the oil economy of the Islamic State. But it is not just the commodity of oil that the caliphate relies on. They have seized and profit from vast fields of wheat and other crops; we should make trade in these crops a non-starter for the buyers wherever we can. So to for trade in anything else that we can disrupt that the terrorists depend upon. As to banking and finance, the United States should be working on all possible ways to help the Iraqis and others disrupt what the Islamic State is doing; paying off Sunni tribes to avoid dealing with the caliphate should be considered.
Second, the administration can work to harm the Islamic State’s image by intensified targeting of its personnel, particularly leaders, wherever they are. Leaders are replaceable but at some point if enough of them die in fiery explosions, the bloom may begin to fade from the rose.
Third, the president can call upon all moderate Muslims to denounce the Islamic State and all radical violent Islamists. Yes, I know that in the administration’s eyes this would be a tacit admission that Islam has a problem if you are calling on Muslims to rebuke their own, but he doesn’t have to admit that. Besides, a few moderate leaders already have spoken up; they should be encouraged with public embraces from the White House and the West generally. As to imams like the one in Minnesota who refuses to criticize the Islamic State, the White House should take him and others like him to task; after all, Obama doesn’t spare Christian leaders when he wants to rebuke or shame them.
Should the president choose this holding option, he is not likely to admit he is doing it. But anything that stalls the Islamic State’s forward motion and sends the message to its supporters that the caliphate is no longer succeeding will be good for national security.
FRED DUFOUR,FRED DEFOUR/AFP/Getty Images