World·Analysis

Even Democrats seem unsure of Obama's ISIS strategy for Iraq, Syria

Even Democrats seem unsure of the president's plan to take on the terrorist group ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Neil Macdonald writes. And the administration's body language is not at all convincing.

The president's deliberative ways not garnering a big coalition on the home front

All hail the commander in chief. But will America follow Barack Obama into another war in Iraq? (Reuters)

Barack Obama at least has the salute down cold. He's actually really good at it.

His arm stays razor straight from his fingertips to his elbow, then it snaps back down, the way Ronald Reagan tried to teach Bill Clinton to do it.

In this impressionistic nation, the presidential salute is a big deal. It conveys that the commander-in-chief is indeed commanding, and comfortable with the role.

But any American who actually turns off the television and reads cannot be terribly comforted by Obama's sudden conversion to wartime president.

It's more evident every day that the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who famously eschews impulsive theatrics for careful reflection, has allowed a bunch of fanatical creeps with butcher knives and a skillful command of social media to push him into reversing long-held policies and rushing off to another foreign war.

Like George W. Bush before him, Obama is now trying to rally other nations to his side, couching his decision to attack ISIS in Iraq and Syria in broad generalities about good and evil.

Terrorism, he told the UN Wednesday in a mangled literary metaphor, "forces us to look into the heart of darkness."

And with that, although Obama certainly doesn't choose to frame it this way, America is suddenly a major participant in Syria's ruinous civil war, carrying out airstrikes both there and in Iraq.

But what is the plan?

This time, though, there are some populist caveats.

A commander, once the mission has been defined, sets out to win. But publicly forswearing the option of putting boots on the ground, as Obama has repeatedly done, is militarily illogical.

Several military experts have pointed that out. Republican Senator John McCain, a former Navy captain with deep ties to the Pentagon, has said it amounts to telling your enemy what you're not willing to do.

So what exactly is the plan? Members of Congress from both parties are asking.

A few days ago, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel struggled when asked the question by Jackie Walorski, a House Republican.

An anti-war protester is taken away while U.S. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel (foreground) testifies at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on ISIS last week. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

And, she pushed, "if this plan is successful … the big 'if,' …what is the end game?"

Well, replied Hagel, the administration intends to put an end to threats of beheadings, slaughter, barbarity, violent pseudo-religious ideology – that sort of thing.

Then, with a straight if somewhat pained face, the secretary concluded: "stability in the Middle East."

"Stability in the Middle East," repeated Warlowski, drily.

"Partners," nodded Hagel, inexplicably.

Equip and train

Committee chairman Howard McKeon wanted to know about Obama's no-boots-on-the-ground promise, which he said was ill-advised, and exactly who would actually be going up against the 20,000 or so militants officials say are now fighting for ISIS.

Iraqi troops in Iraq, replied Hagel, and the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the north.

And in Syria, well, the administration is now committed to equipping and training "moderate" opposition fighters, something Obama has up to now refused to do, on the grounds that moderate Syrian fighters are hard things to identify in a region where extremism is a relative term.

Loretta Sanchez, the ranking Democrat on the committee, jumped in.

Which moderates, please, she asked. Who's their commander? Where are they?

And she wanted to know more about the administration's plan to equip and train: "Equip-and-train? Because we did such a great job in Iraq?"

Happily for Hagel, Sanchez was so irritated she used up all her time, and he didn't have to answer.

That's because Sanchez knows what she's talking about, and there really isn't much of an answer.

The Iraqi military, equipped and trained to the tune of $35 billion by the U.S., has been spectacularly useless against ISIS. Iraqi soldiers have cut and run, or been chopped down in short order.

A few days ago, the Iraqi high command for some reason ignored a garrison's call for help after ISIS cut it off. Eventually, according to reports, the Islamists tricked the garrison's commander into opening the gate and then slaughtered the hundreds of soldiers inside.

The Kurdish Peshmerga are unequipped and outgunned. According to reports from Iraqi Kurdistan, some even drive their own cars to battle. They lost sixteen villages to ISIS in one day last week.

A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter takes up position on a hillside south of Erbil to keep watch on vehicles belonging to ISIS near the town of Makhmur earlier this month. The Peshmerga have a fierce reputation, but little in the way of heavy equipment. (Ahmed Jadallah /Reuters)

What's more, the so-called Syrian moderates have co-operated with the Islamists (why wouldn't they?), even giving them arms. The family of one of ISIS's beheading victims told reporters after his execution that he, in fact, had been sold to ISIS by "moderates."

Given all that, it's understandable that the Pentagon is telling reporters that victory would probably take several years.

Meanwhile, in just three months, ISIS has taken over as the undisputed leader of the jihadi world.

It has gone from obscurity to being the subject of presidential speeches, Pentagon news conferences, Congressional debates and UN resolutions. Its recruiting power has surged.

What's the alternative?

If the point of terrorism is to terrify, it's certainly succeeded. All it took was a couple of nasty beheading videos.

Obama has reportedly told opinion leaders in off-the-record sessions that he's come to realize his deliberative style is at odds with what's sometimes expected from a president.

Probably, his approach was best summed up by Hagel as he sat before the dubious lawmakers last week.

"I think the fear of the American people is that we've all heard this before," Warlowski told him. "We've all lived through this already."

"So what's the alternative?" asked Hagel. "Do nothing?"

It could be worse. Obama could be marching off to war without giving a single substantive answer about what he's doing, which seems to be the Canadian government's approach.

Asked an entirely reasonable question this week about how long it will be before the Canadian mission in Iraq is reviewed, the prime minister's parliamentary secretary, Paul Calandra, jumped up and delivered a remarkable non-sequitur about how Israel is on the front lines of fighting terrorism.

Americans set a higher standard of accountability for their politicians. That sort of cynical non-response wouldn't be tolerated long here.

But Americans also instinctively congregate around a president once he decides to go to war, and it's happening again.

As Sanchez, the lead Democrat on the committee, sputtered rather incoherently as she tried to explain why she was voting for Obama's "train-and-equip" authorization: "I have a problem … you're getting America into an even more complicated situation.

"I hope I am wrong. I hoped the same thing when I voted against the Iraq war, that I was wrong. But I don't believe that I was." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.

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