The scale of the ISIS threat in the Middle East is unprecedented. But is the Obama administration up to the task of dealing with it?
President Barack Obama pauses as he speaks about the killing of American journalist James Foley by militants with the Islamic State extremist group. Photo: AP
For the first time since the founding by jihadists of their own caliphate known as the Islamic State (ISIS), American military strategists finally are attempting to assess the scale of the threat.
“They’re beyond just a terrorist group,” U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. “They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded.” He sees the Islamic State as a threat of a “dimension that the world has never seen before.”
Hagel spoke at the Pentagon in conjunction with the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who, in turn, noted that the organization could be defeated, but only if the battle is taken to them in Iraq and Syria.
But is the current political leadership of the United States up to the task? The White House for three years has talked about the criminal nature of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, and quietly watched as Islamic extremists strengthened their power there.
This year in June, Washington was caught off guard by the sudden large-scale offensive of Islamists in Iraq, who captured Mosul, the second largest city in the country, and threatened to take Baghdad.
In all actuality, the United States was not ready to make any moves in the Middle East.
In Washington at that time they were fully focused on countering Russia, which seems to have become America's greatest evil. In the meantime, the White House foreign policy team has not exactly developed the most effective sanctions against Russia, while the Middle East has grown into a huge “cancerous tumor” (as Washington refers to it). ISIS – as it is impossible not to agree with the head of the Pentagon – is for the United States one of its greatest dangers.
Immediately after the Islamists beheaded American journalist James Foley, President Obama delivered an address to the nation. President Obama described himself as “heartbroken” by the brutal murder of the American journalist, James Foley, and vowed to “be relentless” towards Islamic radicals who threaten to kill other Americans.
However, without exception, the American media noted the following fact. After the cameras were turned off, Mr. Obama went to play golf on Martha's Vineyard, where he spends his traditional August vacation. According to The New York Times, “Presidents learn to wall off their feelings and compartmentalize their lives,” “to make coldhearted decisions in the best interest of the country and manage the burdens of perhaps the most stressful job on the planet.”
But at the same time, the publication noted that, “Few presidents have been known more for cool, emotional detachment than Mr. Obama.” Obama has repeatedly said that he would not allow a second American invasion of Iraq; after all, he withdrew the U.S. military from there in 2001, after eight years of his predecessors’ military escapades.
That’s not to say that the Obama team is completely inactive in Iraq. In recent days, American aircraft began to carry out surgical strikes on positions of Islamic radicals, and they helped the Iraqis and Kurds beat back ISIS militants at some strategic positions near the Mosul Dam.
Washington managed to finally unseat the unpopular Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replace him with the more pragmatic Haider al-Abadi, who is hoping his public administration will start to conduct a less sectarian policy and allow the broadening of representation of Iraqi Shiites and Kurds in the government.
However, Defense Secretary Hagel and Commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey recognize that it is not enough to win through air strikes on the Islamists, who have created a fortified bastion on their territory. Moreover, these strikes are only being conducted in Iraq, while Obama apparently does not intend to give the command to bomb Islamists in Syria after the United States began formally supporting Assad's opponents.
Speaking to reporters after the brutal murder of Foley, Secretary of State Kerry said that the “ISIL [the Islamic State] and the wickedness it represents must be destroyed.” President Obama also said simply that, “People like this ultimately fail.” Kerry’s words sounded like a promise, as if it were America’s moral obligation. Obama's remark was completely neutral.
Analysts have been looking for a name for the incoherent policies of President Obama, not only in the Middle East, but also throughout the world. And they found one – it’s called “leading from behind.” According to columnist Michael Gerson of The Washington Post, this policy means that, “The president wants to keep a strategic ambiguity at the center of American policy.”
According to one publicist, Obama is afraid that his firmness on the world stage will lead to American allies simply laying down their arms, in the expectation that America will become the world’s policeman. But this ambiguity and inaction effectively signify the absence of any viable strategy. President Obama begins to act only when events force his hand. Such was the case in Libya, as was it during the “Arab Spring” in Egypt, and in Ukraine and Iraq.
Is there any hope that over the remaining two-plus years of his presidency, Obama will change his approach? The answer is unequivocally “no.” A graduate of Harvard, who once so impressed the nation and the world with his oratory skills and his drive, has become a classic “lame duck” – and a very lethargic one when it comes to leading. On the other hand, he is quite active when it comes to playing golf.
New voices can now be found among the chorus of critics of Obama's foreign policy. Jerome Israel published an article in The Baltimore Sun with the telling, but provocative title “The United States Needs Russia.” The op-ed describes the American policy towards Russia as “feckless,” urging Washington to reconsider plans to expand NATO and turn to Russia for their experience in the Middle East.
There might be a feeling that the article was written by some leftist American professor who sympathizes with Russia. But that is not the case. Jerome Israel is a former senior official in the National Security Agency and the FBI with over 25 years of experience.
Will anyone hear his voice in the White House? Hardly. Washington seems to have made the final decision not to associate at all with Putin, no matter what happens in Ukraine, Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan. Levying from time to time piecemeal sanctions, which are largely useless, Obama’s team isn’t risking anything. It's not the same thing as trying to wipe out a terrorist state that killed thousands of Christians. The opinion of someone like Jerome Israel is like the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
There is another reason for Obama’s inaction in the Middle East, and it has to do with domestic politics. This year in November, mid-term elections will be held in Congress. Obama has an extremely low rating in the country and no one expects any domestic or foreign initiatives to come from it.
Moreover, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has become increasingly critical of her former boss for the very ambiguity of his policies, his inaction, apathy, and the “power vacuum” he occupies in the United States.
Hilary Clinton, as opposed to Obama, is very active, though she is his senior by 13 years. With strong support from within the country by many of the same voting blocs that once supported President Obama, she already behaves as if she is a presidential candidate for 2016.
The mid-term congressional elections will be an ordeal for the Democrats. The chances are good that the Republicans will take control of not only the House of Representatives, which has long been in their hands, but also the Senate.
And in this case, Obama might as well just sit down and write his memoirs, having finally abandoned his plans for the destruction of the “Islamic state” and even the punishment of Putin. As a contender for the White House, Hillary Clinton may possibly walk away with the presidency. What should the world expect to come from such a situation? We can expect only the arrival of a new team in the White House in 2016 and the replacement of the “lead from behind” policy with a new, more vigorous one.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.