Friday, 12 September 2014

What is Obama thinking? No, really.

   There's a few concerns around the place regarding the US getting itself into yet another military involvement in Iraq. Some query the action itself (what even is it going to look like? is this really such a good idea?) and many a journo is also questioning Obama's reasoning, his arguments for taking action. The reasons themselves sound a bit weak, and the President's selling of the whole deal is rather reminiscent of Bush - whom Obama spent so much time pre-election dissing for just that kinda thing.

The Plan

Of course, one hopes these actions (whatever they are) won't backfire and make things worse as occurred in Bush's case: creating a vacuum in Iraq that ISIS, amongst others, has since freely jumped into. And looking to Syria: experts have concerns that a weakening of ISIS is likely to have the unwanted outcome of strengthening Assad. American officials have warned "there are risks that escalating airstrikes could do the opposite of what they are intended to do and fan the threat of terrorism to American soil."

Meanwhile, the 'plan' itself has been seen as heavily flawed by some in the military and a few government officials. Retired Marine Gen. James Mattis said “the decision not to send ground troops poses serious risks to the mission." The military recommendation to send Special Ops forces to advise and assist the Iraqi army "was cast aside in favour of options that did not involve U.S. ground forces in a front-line role."

A couple of things adding to the complexity:

Wall Street Journal: "In Syria, officials have repeatedly raised the problem of adequately vetting rebels to ensure the people trained and armed by the U.S. don’t join the ranks of Islamic State"

 (Been there, done that.)

USA Today: "As airstrikes increase, Islamic State militants are likely to mingle more among the population, making targeting more difficult and increasing the risks of civilian casualties."

(Unfortunately, been there, killed that too.)

Obama v Bush

I've read some interesting analysis in The Atlantic. Conor Friedersdorf examined how hypocritical Obama's approach has been considering his earlier castigations of Bush's arguments for charging into Iraq. To start with, the article notes both Presidents argued that the enemy was unique.


"In a region that has known so much bloodshed, these terrorists are unique in their brutality."

Bush, 2002:

"Some ask why Iraq is different from other countries or regimes that also have terrible weapons. While there are many dangers in the world, the threat from Iraq stands alone—because it gathers the most serious dangers of our age in one place."


"They execute captured prisoners. They kill children. They enslave, rape, and force women into marriage. They threatened a religious minority with genocide. And in acts of barbarism, they took the lives of two American journalists."

Bush 2002:

"On Saddam Hussein's orders, opponents have been decapitated, wives and mothers of political opponents have been systematically raped as a method of intimidation, and political prisoners have been forced to watch their own children being tortured."

Hence we can see, yeah, ISIS... not so unique after all. How much lovelier the world would be if indeed they were the only group to be decapitating, torturing and raping. As noted by the Guardian last month:

"While the world's attention was focused on Isis, a like-minded Shia militia attacked a Sunni mosque in the Iraqi province of Diyala on Friday, killing nearly 70 worshippers. This militia is linked to the government and has fought alongside the security forces against Isis."

Friedersdorf explains: "Bashar al-Assad turned chemical weapons on children. Is that somehow less brutal than beheading journalists? How can a man [Obama] who regarded the Iraq War as stupid, despite the fact that the regime we overthrew was every bit as brutal as ISIS, now cite the supposed "unique" brutality of ISIS as a primary justification for taking America to war in Iraq?"

Friedersdorf also argues Saddam Hussein (regardless of that 'surprising' dearth of WMD) posed a bigger threat to the US and its allies than ISIS does. Yet Obama did not support that war.

"If Obama thinks the lack of WMDs fatally undercut the 2002 case for war in Iraq, how is it that he now thinks national security requires intervention against a group with no WMDs or ballistic missiles or highly trained international intelligence apparatus?"

Essentially, Obama is giving Americans - and US allies who will be pulled into any conflict led by the US - the same reasons for military intervention in Iraq as Bush did in 2002 & 2003. Even worse, ISIS is not as well-armed, trained or in such great numbers as Hussein's threat - plus, Obama plans not only to attack sections of Iraq, but also to venture into Syria.

Associated Press has explained that most analysts "estimate the number of Islamic State fighters in both Iraq and Syria to be about 20,000. The Iraqi military and police force are estimated at more than 1 million. The Syrian army is estimated at 300,000 soldiers. There are believed to be more than 100,000 Syrian rebels, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the powerful Islamic Front rebel umbrella group, currently fighting the Islamic State group in Syria. Tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga forces are fighting the group in Iraq."

They argue there's "been an inclination to exaggerate" ISIS’s capabilities: "While the group has been successful at seizing parts of Iraq and Syria, it is no unstoppable juggernaut. Lacking the major weaponry of an established military" its influence comes from spreading ideology, its use of social media and has made gains mostly due to making the most of divisions among rivals.

The ISIS Threat

And "if ISIS lacks the motivation and capacity for anything close to 9/11," i.e. aren't even as geared up and trained as Hussein's army, "then President Obama’s stated justification for even an air war looks weak. So far, the press hasn’t done a good enough job of determining if this is the case." (Peter Beinart)

Also, the argument of preventing a "lone wolf" attack make attacking militants in Iraq and Syria seem a bit of an overkill. Another dude with explosives in his underwear isn't likely to take the lives of anywhere near 3,000 people as occurred on 9/11 (and, in case you're interested, here's another unique way to look at it - some big picture thinking). 

Regardless, it's worth noting that thus far Obama has only said ISIS "could" attack the US "if" the terrorists are "left unchecked". And those Westerners who have ventured over to be trained by ISIS "could" return to their home countries and attempt an attack.

Here, Beinart queries just how much of a threat ISIS is to the US: "Press coverage of ISIS often ignores the fact that, in the past, the group has not targeted the American homeland. Jihadist groups, even monstrous ones, don’t inevitably go after the United States. Al-Qaeda began doing so as part of a specific strategy. [...] It was only when direct efforts [to overthrow regimes of Egypt and Saudi Arabia] failed that al-Qaeda hatched a new strategy: attacking those regimes’ patron, the United States."

As that is still al-Qaeda’s strategy, "the U.S. has arguably had more to fear from those Westerners who have joined the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, than from those who have joined ISIS." A worse realisation is, al-Nusra may be end up benefiting from US attacking ISIS by taking current ISIS territory.

There is (so far) the difference that there'll be "no boots on the ground". (Note: On Wednesday Obama said 475 more U.S. military advisers would head to Iraq, raising the number of American forces to 1,700. If not boots, well, that's a few shoes of some description on the ground...) Yet, as Friedersdorf points out:

"if America didn't successfully eliminate violent extremists in Afghanistan or Iraq even with tens of thousands of boots on the ground, if extremists in those countries began to gain more power as soon as Americans left, if we didn't manage to successfully train their armies even during a years-long deployment of our best forces, why do we think that a foe Chuck Hagel characterizes as the most formidable we've seen in the War on Terror can be beat with airstrikes and a few hundred advisers?"

The Obama Sell

Gotta say, as yet, Obama's rationale for military strikes against ISIS are far from convincing.

""I have the authority to address the threat from ISIL," he told the nation, with no further explanation offered, despite the fact that he went on record as a presidential candidate with a war powers standard that would plainly forbid acting as he now plans to without Congressional approval. [...] Meanwhile, multiple authors at Lawfare are openly scoffing at the new legal theory that he has suddenly adopted."

Not only is Obama not running this by Congress, he has yet to explain: the objective, role of allies, length of the engagement, limits of cost, whether the US will be arming future potential enemies - in fact, who they plan to arm at all.

Yet, if Obama asked Australia this very moment to add its strength militarily, we know PM Abbott would say yes in a heartbeat. No questions asked. And to think Americans and Australians live in democracies. In both nations, not even those elected, apart from the few most elite, are given a say. And unfortunately, the Australian media seem more excited about the drama of the whole affair than being at all critical. As Bernard Keane recently pointed out, we don't even question our heads of intelligence. Australian journos treat them as sacred and their word as gospel.

Anyway, good news!'s not a war. Nope. John Kerry said it's fine if you want to call it a war but it's really it's just "a major counterterrorism operation". As Obama explained, this type of counterterrorism has been "successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years" - the Guardian and others have queried the President's definition of "success" as "in both Yemen and Somalia, al-Qaida’s affiliates have proven durable." And "no end is in sight against either al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen or al-Shabaab in Somalia – an ominous indicator for a war against the far more capable and financially flush Isis."

Considering senior government officials have explained they won't be "telegraphing" actions but will act "as necessary as we develop targets," this does at least sound along the lines of counterterrorism more than outright war. Though it's a fine line and the former could too easily swell into the latter. One wonders if John Kerry realises this.

And hopefully he's not naive as he sounds when he speaks of the absolute simplicity of breaking ISIS's hold on the region: 

"It is going to be our policy to separate (al-Assad), who is mostly in the western part of Syria, in a certain corridor from the eastern part of Syria, which he doesn't control. ISIL controls that part. So it is clearly ... not a very difficult task to target ISIL." - John Kerry.

The US is currently encouraging its Gulf allies to target and stop the flows of both funding and foreign fighters heading to ISIS. And, for Sunni states like Saudi Arabia to dissuade other Sunnis from being drawn to the ISIS ideology. All that makes the Iraq aspect "seem easy,” a US general said, speaking anonymously. “This is the most complex problem we’ve faced since 9/11. We don’t have a precedent for this.

Obama's approach to this complex problem, into which he is voluntarily adding US military to some unknown extent, is thus far clear as mud. Hopefully he will explain the US's planned course in much greater detail when he chairs a UN General Assembly meet later this month.

[P.S. -- I must add, it would appear al Qaeda didn't disown ISIS due to a queasy response to the group's violent extremes. In fact, "the reason Zawahiri denounced the group was not its cruelty but its refusal to follow his orders and merge with another extremist organization. In other words, the dispute between ISIS and al Qaeda was not about the conduct of the former but about who was in charge, a regular feature of regional power dynamics." - On the Origin of ISIS.]