World·Analysis

Why the ISIS mission is Obama's real 'red line'

Superpowers have their uses, Joe Schlesinger writes. And the failure to "degrade and destroy" ISIS would degrade America as a force for good in the world.

Failure to 'degrade and destroy' ISIS would degrade America as a force for good in the world

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses more than 20 foreign defence chiefs to discuss the coalition efforts in the ongoing campaign against ISIS. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

The United States, the world's most powerful country, is being challenged by a motley collection of sadistic torturers and killers called ISIS with pretences of being a religious state.

As odd as it may seem, the U.S. and its allies, Canada included, have gone into this fight with one hand tied behind their backs.

They have ruled out sending in ground troops because the risk of heavy casualties would be politically unacceptable to their home constituencies.

Instead, they've limited themselves to trying to do the job with only air power and local forces — like the seemingly overmatched Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga militia — to do the ground fighting.

All this is a far cry from the beginning of the 21st century when the U.S. was not just another superpower, but the world's hugely confident supreme power.

After the fall of the Soviet empire in the preceding decade there was no state, or even a combination of countries, capable of challenging America's hegemony.

The U.S dominated the world with the strength of its economy, its technological prowess, the stability and liberties of its political institutions and the supremacy of its military might.

No longer. The U.S. economy has just barely recovered from the tsunami of the 2008 recession. Its technological dominance is being nibbled at by China, South Korea and others. Its politics is mired in partisan squabbling.

As for the U.S. military, it is still by far the most powerful in the world. But the cost in lives and treasure of the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haunts America still.

And the memory of those losses has hog-tied the country with a lack of will.

What red line?

Washington's timidity was symbolized two years ago by President Barack Obama when he warned the Syrian regime that use of chemical weapons against its domestic opponents would cross a red line that would bring on U.S. military intervention.

But when chemical weapon rockets, apparently launched by the Syrian army, killed hundreds of civilians in a Damascus suburb, the red line disappeared as if deleted by a whitener.

The world took notice of America's reticence to use its vast power. And countries everywhere reacted by taking advantage of Washington's inertia. 

Among those now thumbing their noses at America's might: Russia's Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolskyi/RIA/Reuters)

China grew more aggressive in its territorial claims around the South China Sea.

Japan, South Korea and other nations looked for ways to protect themselves should the U.S. fail to live up to its commitments to underwrite their security

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defied U.S. demands that he broaden his Shia-dominated government with more representative Sunni and Kurdish ministers. And the resentment of Iraq's Sunnis, who account for more than a third of the population, contributed to the rise of the Sunni ISIS movement.

In Egypt, the army defied the U.S. in overthrowing the elected government of Mohammed Morsi.

In Israel, the Netanyahu government essentially shrugged when the U.S. complained about the spread of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin brazenly took over Ukraine's Crimea, then set his sights on eastern Ukraine with arguments about a Greater Russia that have sent shudders through the region.

Add it all up and what you have is much of the world thumbing its nose at Uncle Sam. That is bad not only for the U.S., but also the world.

Degraded and destroyed

Superpowers may not be lovable. In fact, quite a few have been evil.

But they can also be useful in setting basic rules of acceptable international behaviour, as well as protecting the weak from the strong.

That's what the Americans often did in the second half of the 20th century. Yes, the country profited from it enormously, but the U.S. also gave generously of its power and its purse.

Sometimes, of course, as in Iraq, it also blundered, as great powers will.

Now, Barack Obama is trying to reclaim that leadership role with his campaign to "degrade and destroy" ISIS.

However, of the 60 or so participants in the new U.S.-led coalition, only about a dozen — Canada among them — have agreed to take part in the military campaign; the rest have said they would provide humanitarian aid and political support.

Looking at the list demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the coalition.

The coalition against ISIS. From right to left: Maj.-Gen. Ghanim bin Shaheen Al-Ghanim, chief of staff of the Qatari Armed Forces; Admiral Fernando Garcia Sanchez, chief of defence of Spain; and Lt.-Gen. Ludvigsen, vice-chief of defence of Denmark. They are listening to U.S. President Barack Obama discuss the coalition efforts at Joint Base Andrews in Washington on Oct. 14, 2014. (Reuters)

The very fact that that Washington has managed to enlist so many partners would indicate that there is still a hankering for America's global leadership.

Though there are clearly quite a few who joined merely out of fear that rebuffing Uncle Sam could cost them in their future relations with Washington.

And while they all talk to the Americans, some have been loath even to say hello to each other.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been at odds for years. The Turks will not do anything to help the Kurds, who are one of the main victims of ISIS.

Shia Iran is willing to join the fight, but is being kept on the sidelines for fear of alienating Sunni Arab coalition members.

More than a dozen coalition partners have contributed nothing more than a few polite words wishing the coalition well.

Still, for all the doubts about air power, there is a precedent of aerial bombardment doing the job. It happened in the Balkans 15 years ago during the conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The Kosovo Liberation Army — the counterpart, if you will, of the Kurdish Peshmerga today — was being battered by the vastly superior forces of Serbia.

But after 10 weeks of bombardment by NATO planes, the Serbs agreed to withdraw their forces from Kosovo.

Obama can only hope that his anti-ISIS coalition can do the same.

If not, the damage would be a lot more serious than just to the president's reputation. 

Failing to "degrade and destroy" ISIS would certainly degrade if not destroy the effectiveness of the U.S. superpower and its allies as a force for peace and stability.

This time around, Barack Obama has no choice but to make sure that everyone understands that the red line he has now drawn in the sands of Iraq and Syria really means STOP.

About the Author

Joe Schlesinger

Foreign Correspondent Emeritus

Joe Schlesinger was a foreign correspondent for CBC for 28 years, covering natural disasters, political upheavals and conflicts from Vietnam to the Persian Gulf. In 2009, the Canadian Journalism Foundation honoured Schlesinger for his body of work.

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