How can we account for the apparent flip-flopping of the Obama administration about what we are doing, or might do further, to the Islamic State?
At times the secretary of defense seems at odds with the secretary of state. The administration seems not to be reacting to its own intelligence information about the Islamic State. Nor is it heeding the professional advice of the Joint Chiefs or top-ranking military officers in the field. Instead, in the run-up to the midterm elections, Obama appears to be guided largely by a stubborn adherence to his own past political truisms, and that explains the current inability to articulate a strategy or craft a coalition.
In anti-empirical fashion, the following axioms must be true — and thus the facts on the ground in Syria and Iraq must be massaged to reflect these beliefs.
1. The growth of the Islamic State has little if anything to do with the total withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. Our departure did not prompt the Maliki government to backslide into religious oppression, free the skies for foreign powers, and open the countryside to resurgent Islamists.
2. The success of the Islamic State has nothing to do with the past failure to aid anti–Bashar Assad groups in Syria that once upon a time may have also opposed the Islamic State.
3. The current ascendancy of the Islamic State has nothing to do with a sense that the credibility of the United States in the region is diminished, or that enemies in the Middle East are emboldened by past non-enforcement of loudly announced red lines, step-over lines, or deadlines. Nor does it have to do with the situation on the ground after the bombing of Libya, or with the promise to vacate Afghanistan, or with the shunning of our old allies in the Gulf and Egypt.
4. The administration’s current Middle East plan of reaching out to the Islamic world — from the euphemisms about terrorism to the proclamations of underappreciated Islamic achievement to outreach to Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Iranians — has largely worked and therefore should be continued. Hence, the statement that the Islamic State has nothing to do with Islam.
5. The principal source of the ongoing violence is past U.S. presidents — especially George W. Bush — who stirred up the hornets’ nests by bombing Iraq. The upheaval in the Middle East cannot be blamed on Barack Obama, who simply inherited a mess and so cannot be faulted for matter-of-factly trying to pass it on to the next president.
6. The American people are horrified by the televised beheading of American journalists and want something done. Indeed, they are seething at videos of the innocent people slaughtered by sadistic jihadist bullies. But they are also exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan and sick of the Middle East — enemies, neutrals, and perhaps even allies alike. Therefore, a loud but limited bombing campaign may soothe angry American feelings without making long-term costly commitments that could turn unpopular. The Islamic State can be waited out.
7. The United States’ drastically improved energy picture makes intervention in the Middle East, or even support for oil-producing monarchies, less important. The administration believes that it can afford to weather this storm and return to its policy of benign neglect of the Middle East.
8. Are we really that much in danger? The administration assumes that it is unlikely that, for all its braggadocio, the Islamic State can hit the continental United States as al-Qaeda did 13 years ago, and therefore there is no need to conduct careful reviews of visas from the Middle East, or to plan a long-term strategy to deny the Islamic State resources, or to ratchet back up the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism protocols. The jihadists will soon deflate after blowing their last bursts of hot air.
9. The debate over the U.S. reaction to the Islamic State is terribly unfair to Nobel Laureate Barack Obama. He has made it clear that he is not so interested in foreign affairs. He has emphasized to Middle Eastern journalists his own father’s Islamic pedigree and has apologized for past American behavior and promised a different future ethos. Someone in the Middle East is not appreciating the fact that Obama neither sounds nor looks like a typical American president, and such obtuseness is terribly insensitive and exasperating, and interferes with what Obama is trying to accomplish. It is hardly fair that those who are not looking for war should be found by it.
10. Hope-and-change rhetoric can still do much to solve the crisis. Declaring the Islamic State a jayvee amateurish force, only to upgrade it later, or deprecating the Syrian Free Army as little more than a fantasy of inexperienced professionals and then counting on it for support, or suggesting that we are at war and not at war — all these are sort-of strategies to keep narratives changing as rapidly as are events on the ground. There is no need for consistency in judgment, given that things happen, and the press will largely not collate past assertions with present contradictions. In short, teleprompted rhetoric, with plenty of let-me-be-perfectly-clear emphatics, can sound enough like a foreign policy that enough Americans will believe something is being done while the crisis naturally abates.
If we keep all the above assumptions in mind, then what the Obama administration has said, and will say tomorrow, has a certain logic and consistency. And that is the problem, as potential allies sit tight, all too aware that should they join the cause of the administration they may well be left high and dry, or worse, when Obama turns his brief attention span elsewhere. Theirs is a dangerous assumption, but an understandable one as well.