Reluctant warriors like Woodrow Wilson, LBJ, and President Obama make special kinds of mistakes. We will see how those mistakes develop this time around.
The Obama Administration has just started its second Middle Eastern war, this one in Syria following some warm-up exercises in Iraq. This follows the one it started in Libya back in March 2011, which, despite its coalition character and international legal pretense, may now fairly be reckoned a multi-dimensional disaster: it comes complete with a gratuitous failed state (as if we needed another one in the region), wild-eyed, murderous Islamist militias running around in the vacuum, a murdered American ambassador, collateral damage from Algeria to Mali to Northern Nigeria, and a probable forthcoming Egyptian intervention with consequences very much unknown.
Like that intervention, the one that began yesterday in Syria has been undertaken by a reluctant warrior. President Obama never wanted to be a war President; he wanted to be an un-war President, a wind-down-the-wars President. He also wanted to be a nuclear zero President, only to find himself presiding over the largest and most expensive nuclear weapons modernization program in decades (which is necessary and which is, if anything, too modest). So it goes.
Reluctant warriors do not often make good wartime commanders-in-chief. Woodrow Wilson promised to keep the United States out of the World War only to enter it, and affect its termination, as a goo-goo-eyed secular crusader in a way that prefigured the toxic twenty-year truce that led to World War II and the Holocaust. Lyndon Baines Johnson did not want to Americanize the war in Vietnam in 1964-65, but he reluctantly gave in to his military commanders and advisors in the interest of “not losing”, bequeathing the counterproductive doctrine of graduated response that, in the end, lengthened the war and got more people on all sides killed in consequence. Reluctant warriors, whether prone to excessive ambition that would atone for the sins of violence, as with Saint Woodrow, or whether prone instead to dwell in the hell of half-measures, as with LBJ, make special kinds of mistakes. We will see how those mistakes develop this time around.
Mistakes of commission often follow mistakes of omission with reluctant warriors. As we have been at pains for years to make clear here at TAI, President Obama’s failure to devise and implement a judicious use of American power somewhere between direct military intervention in the Syria civil war and utter passivity contributed much to the rise of ISIS (along with the gradual but ultimately critical weakening of the Arab states and the Arab state system itself, the causes of which I alluded to last time). Leading from behind is one thing; sitting on one’s behind sounds similar, but it’s different. And now, as many warned, the President has fewer options, all of them distasteful, in an environment more radicalized, polarized, and militarized than he had two or three years ago. His instinctual Micaweberism backfired: Something did indeed “turn up”, but it’s nastier than a sewer rat full of bad whiskey.
As I described them in this space on September 17, the President’s options ranged—before yesterday—from bad to worse to merely lousy.
A lousy option would have been to simply demur, let another de facto presidential red line pass without action. All sorts of unfortunate consequences would have attended that option not chosen, to be sure. ISIS would look the strong horse in a region where nothing succeeds like success. No Arab coalition, or any coalition, would have formed against ISIS without American leadership, not that a truly effective one relative to the proclaimed mission has formed now. The U.S. reputation would have suffered further damage, driving frightened allies into dangerous forms of appeasement and self-help. All bad.
The worse option, which we may well choose by default in due course, is introducing U.S. troops once again into the heart of the Arab world—not just small numbers of Special Forces, but ultimately the “big army.” Airpower and special forces can devastate the ISIS military order of battle when it is in transit or set for battle out in the open. But they cannot drive ISIS out of towns and cities. That requires boots—and blood—on the ground, and if no ally will supply it, as seems almost certain, we will either have to do it ourselves or face defeat by our own definition of the mission.
So the reluctant warrior has chosen the bad option, for now: bombing without embellishment. What will this option produce, militarily and otherwise?
Option Bad will come as good news to the large number of Syrian Kurds who have been fleeing to Turkey in recent days or who were about to do so. That is what probably accelerated the schedule, and while I lack detailed operational information, I am assuming that special attention is being paid to the area around Kobani in order to relieve the pressure and stop the refugee flow. That is all to the good, of course.
The air attacks will kill a lot of ISIS fighters—allied tribesmen as well as jihadi terrorists, foreigners as well as natives. Relatives of those dead tribesmen will know who killed them and will seek revenge against members of the American (and other) tribes responsible. They will seek this revenge possibly for decades and generations. That is not so good.
As for the jihadis, the call has already gone out to Muslims inside the U.S.-led coalition countries, in the Middle East and beyond, to exact revenge for what we have already done. Here (in translation) is what an ISIS spokesman said yesterday to the faithful embedded abroad: “Rig the roads with explosives. Attack their bases. Raid their homes. Cut off their heads. Turn their worldly life into fear and fire.” You have to hand it to the ISIS speechwriters; that’s very effective stuff.
Now, the French have taken responsibility publicly for attacks in Iraq but not Syria, as if that distinction makes any difference to the ISIS cadres who have erased not just the border between the two states but are making good progress on erasing the two states themselves. The United States is leading the whole effort. Everyone knows what side al-Sisi’s Egypt is on (except maybe some people in Washington). Announced “allies” include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. My guess is that these allies are named for decorative, not operational, purposes. Saudi Arabia is training FSA would-be fighters. Qatar’s contribution is letting us use the al-Udeid air base for this operation, and Bahrain’s is letting the Fifth Fleet fire cruise missiles from its territorial waters. Jordan’s forte is intelligence. The UAE may have actually contributed some airpower, seeing as how Emirati pilots recently got some practice bombing Libya from Egyptian airfields. I doubt if many—possibly even any—Saudi, Qatari, Bahraini or Jordanian aircraft took part in yesterday’s strikes.
I suspect that payback violence is on its way to all these countries in the region, not to exclude Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. (Yemen is already hosting a civil war in its capital so it doesn’t need outside encouragement.) France will probably be hit as well, and Britain too. The United States is now newly vulnerable to swarm attacks on American targets throughout the region similar to the Benghazi September 2012 fiasco.
As to the American homeland, attacks that would otherwise not take place cannot be ruled out. So please note in that regard Monday’s front page above-the-fold Washington Post headline: “Turnover at the top has DHS unsettled.” If that were not enough, consider that on Friday Omar Jose Gonzales made it over an iron fence and into the front door of the White House before the Secret Service stopped him to ask just what the heck he thought he was doing. Turns out he had an arsenal of eleven guns and ammunition—and a spotting scope—in his car, and a map of Washington with a line pointed at the White House. A month ago Gonzales had been spotted carrying a hatchet outside the White House; the guards spoke with him but let him go without further ado. Makes you wonder how ready we are for ISIS’s allies, doesn’t it?
The attacks will also destroy a fair bit of equipment, most of it ours by origin—which is ignominious in its own way if one is prepared to connect the dots that explain how that happened. But it will drive what heavy equipment we miss into hiding, and it will accelerate the melting of ISIS cadres into urban areas. This will slow ISIS’s operational tempo, but it will not destroy it. It may reduce its order of battle as marginal types think better of risking their lives, but that will only leave a radicalized true-believer core. And the attacks will certainly make the United States enemy number one again, as we attract hatreds heretofore focused on local antagonists. It is very useful in the Levant today to have everyone know that you are the Americans’ enemy. It is a badge of honor. ISIS may therefore end up more than replacing the faint-hearted and dead—a possibility noted, by the way, by Marine General James Mattis at congressional hearings late last week.
And last for now, the strikes will persuade a lot of people in the region that the United States is secretly allied with the Shi’a. Secretary Kerry has been publicly talking about how all countries in the region need to help out in the anti-ISIS campaign, even as he asserts no explicit cooperation or coordination with Iran or the Assad regime in Damascus. He needs to stop talking. All this blathering just persuades the Sunni street further that the opposite of what he is saying is the truth, and that is because they simply look over their shoulders to gaze upon what passes for regional (sur)reality. The strikes did not include Assad regime targets, like airfields, as they should have, and this objectively helps Assad militarily. Arabs are not stupid so they know this, even if many are afflicted with a penchant for conspiracy mongering and magical thinking.
As for Iran, well, the Iranians said the other day that they might be willing to help us out against ISIS but we’d have to relent in the P5+1 negotiations on our insistence about how many centrifuges they can run. Now, only a fool would pay Tehran in the coin of a negotiation concession to do something that is in its own interest to do anyway, but a lot of Arabs think we are fools—and given our repeated demonstrations of cluelessness, stretching now over at least two administrations, who can blame them? So when the Iranians say things like this, and we are seen to ponder the notion as opposed to ridiculing it, what are the Arabs supposed to understand?
By choosing Option Bad, President Obama has eliminated forever the possibility of going with Option Lousy. It is not possible to call back cruise missiles and drone ordnance and bombs once they have delivered their payloads. He has not eliminated the possibility of moving to Option Worse, however, when Option Bad fails to deliver the mission goal.
Will the President proceed to Option Worse? We cannot know because he does not yet know. Chances are, however, that if he does, he will do so reluctantly. That suggests that he will wait and temporize as long as possible while Option Bad fails, the result of which will be to produce the worst possible political optic, that of an America that is uncertain, deadly but still timid, uninspired and uninspiring, and above all unable to use its power to achieve its stated aims.