Waiting for a Commander-in-Chief

by Jim Talent

After President Obama’s speech from the Oval Office, it’s evident that his administration is not going to take significant additional steps to deal with ISIS during the next twelve months. That’s disappointing, especially since there are prominent figures on the left in other countries who do recognize the threat posed by ISIS. As an example, watch this stirring speech given by Hillary Benn, the Labour Party’s Shadow Foreign Secretary, in the House of Commons last week. (The last few minutes are especially powerful.)

That makes it even more important that the next president must come into office prepared to defeat ISIS. A good plan will require doing a number of things in a number of places at the same time, and probably for a long time. Here’s a list:

Strategy: In the Levant, it is first necessary to set a political objective that will make it possible to assemble a coalition that can defeat ISIS. The cooperation of the Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria is essential to victory, and they will not sign up if they believe that the result of an ISIS defeat will be a region dominated by Iran, radical Shia militia, and Bashar Assad. One of the strengths of ISIS, despicable as they are to most Muslims, is that to the Sunni Muslims in the Levant they are the lesser of two evils. So America’s goal must be not just to defeat ISIS but to emerge with a political arrangement in the region that is acceptable to the Sunni tribes as well as those Sunni regional powers (Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf States) which – before the Obama administration — were America’s best allies in the region.

Needless to say, the details of such an arrangement will be immensely difficult to work out and implement — much more difficult than was  the case only a few years ago. That’s because decisions have consequences; bad decisions over time tend to narrow options; and the Obama Administration has made a lot of bad decisions in Iraq and Syria. But details aside, it is vital that the United States convince the region, through consistent action in support of consistent policy, that it is committed to a political solution that accommodates the basic security concerns of the Sunni tribes and powers.

That is one reason why the administration’s attempted rapprochement with Iran is so damaging. As everyone outside of the White House knew, it has not and will not restrain Iranian aggression, but it has undermined America’s credibility with the Sunni actors whose cooperation is necessary to defeat radical Islam in all its forms.

Combat Support: A much more vigorous air campaign and ground-combat support effort in Iraq and Syria is essential to both the military and political objectives. Apart from the damage that can be inflicted directly on ISIS through such efforts, the world must be convinced that the United States is fully engaged in the fight, and the best way to do that is by actually fighting them at the center of their Caliphate.

“Combat support” means assistance with targeting, logistics and intelligence, advisers embedded with friendly forces at company level, and support with special operations. Even robust combat support may not turn the tide if allied ground forces are inadequate, but the current anemic American effort is not going to cut it.

The Administration’s policy in this regard is a mystery to me. I understand and agree with not wanting American troops to bear the brunt of ground combat in Syria. But why commit American personnel to an air campaign and combat support mission — thus accepting the risks associated with such a mission — but then restrict them to a minimal effort that signals weakness and virtually guarantees failure? 

Cut Off Funding: Greater efforts must be made to  strangle the sources of funding on which ISIS relies. Allied air forces are currently attacking the truck convoys ISIS uses to transport oil. That’s a good first step, though it should have been taken long ago. It is also important to step up efforts to cut ISIS off from banking transactions through international efforts which the United States must lead.

Training: ISIS is spreading all over the world. It would be good if (for once) America got ahead of the game. The United States should identify countries which are in the process of being penetrated by ISIS, or which are at high risk of such penetration, and begin vigorously training local security forces to resist. The Army’s special operation forces excel at this mission; they should be engaged in numerous places globally to build firewalls against ISIS. 

Be Willing to Act Directly on the Ground: In Syria the best course is a vigorous air and combat support campaign coupled with a political strategy designed to pull together a coalition of Kurds and Sunnis to fight on the ground. But the fight against ISIS is global, and the United States should not rule out ground combat missions elsewhere. Even in Syria, it would be good to actually try to capture ISIS leaders to get intelligence from them, rather than focus so narrowly on killing them through drones or air strikes.

The broader point is that the next president should not allow ISIS to plan on the assumption that under no circumstances will they have to confront directly the best and most lethal ground fighting forces in the world: the United States Army and Marine Corps. With that in mind, it would be good, to put it mildly, to stop reducing the end strength of the Army and Marines, and to recapitalize their inventories of equipment with the war against ISIS in mind. 

Intelligence: Robust intelligence is essential to defeating radical Islamic terrorism generally, and certainly to defeat ISIS. The next president should make it a personal priority to recreate a consensus over the methods of American intelligence gathering. That will mean gathering leaders of both parties and all opinions in a room, knocking heads together, and coming out with agreement over the rules of intelligence collection. I am of the opinion that the metadata program should be reinstated, perhaps with further reforms to reassure those especially concerned with civil liberties.  But whatever the final agreement turns out to be, once it is reached the President should ensure that all parties stick to it, take responsibility for vigorous oversight, and support the intelligence community as it carries out the policy.

Border Protection: America’s borders must be protected from infiltration by radical Islamists and people who are at high risk to be radicalized once they are here. ISIS has a definite plan to attack the United States in that way. (The recent San Bernardino shootings were an example of this plan in action.)  No matter what America does, we can’t be certain of stopping all such attacks, but we shouldn’t make it easier for ISIS by allowing into the United States large numbers of people who can’t possibly be vetted adequately. At the very least, the intake of Syrian refugees should be paused until a better process is put into place.

There is a better way to protect legitimate Syrian refugees. We should invest money and effort in building camps or safe zones for them, not necessarily in Syria itself but in places nearby in the region. That is much easier, safer, and more effective than allowing people into the country who may not be fleeing from totalitarian ideology but bringing it with them.                 

Identify the Enemy: The government should bring clarity to the fight, which means being willing to publicly identify the enemy: not the Muslim world, or the majority of Muslims, but Islamic radicalism — both the military arm that attacks us and the political arm that supports and recruits fighters.  Some months ago British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech to this effect. The next president should do the same.

Refusing to name the enemy doesn’t attract moderate Muslims to our cause; it dissuades them from joining us and encourages the radicals, because it makes us look feckless and afraid. How can we expect moderate Muslims, who have the greatest reason to fear the enemy, to believe we will support them if we are too fearful even to say publicly what everyone knows to be the truth?

Strength: Winning a war requires, above all, power. Much of the effort against ISIS will require strong tools of “soft power”: intelligence, effective communication including through social media, diplomacy that recruits allies and manages alliances, and economic sanctions that deprive the enemy of resources. But the foundation for the success of those tools is America’s ability to deliver hard power decisively and quickly. We cannot defeat ISIS in the long term, much less while also deterring aggression by Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China, without surging the defense budget to repair the damage which the sequester has inflicted on the armed forces.

There is no question that the United States, in concert with the numerous allies who are available, has the strength to defeat this enemy. In fact, in raw terms America has the power by itself to overwhelm ISIS. The question is whether America’s anger over the barbarism of ISIS can be translated into a serious, ongoing and united national purpose to defeat them. That won’t happen under the current commander-in-chief. It must happen under the next one, before the enemy figures out how to strike a decisive blow, perhaps using one or more weapons of mass destruction, which dwarfs in lethality the past attacks on America’s homeland.

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