Politics & Policy

Fighting to Lose in Iraq and Syria

(Pool Photo/Getty Images)
Obama’s coalition is falling apart before it can get going.

The global anti-terrorist coalition — the grand coalition that America called together in 2001, on the basis of the quasi-global alliance system that America had built up over the course of the preceding century — is fraying as never before. Obama has called upon it to fly into action; instead it is flying into mutual collision. It needs a leader to hold it together, and in Obama’s America, it has not had one. Turks, Kurds, Shiites, and Westerners are fighting at cross-purposes.

There can be nothing worse than fighting to lose. Loss in the present war — unlike in wars of choice, such as Kosovo or Libya — would have catastrophic consequences.

Obama may go down in history as the man who grew the Islamic State into a major threat to the Middle East and the world. Still worse, he may go down as the man who unraveled the global anti-terrorist coalition and undermined its core inner alliance system — NATO plus its global partnership arrangements — that is the foundation of nearly all global security. 

Fighting to Lose?

While the Turkey of Erdogan has made clear its priorities — defeat the Kurds and the Assad-Shiites, and secondarily, stop the Islamic State — the U.S. of Obama is less clear in its words. Nevertheless, its priorities are evident from its deeds:

1. Keep the U.S. out of the ground war, keep the “base” (the Left) happy, and “do something” (i.e. bomb the Islamic State, but only on a small scale).

2. On Syria, don’t work with Assad, but don’t make a serious effort to topple him, either.

3. Use the mutual conflicts among those fighting the Islamic State as a reason not to help any one of them enough.

4. Blame everyone else, especially Turkey, for the results of America’s insufficient effort.

Turkey, in turn, blames the U.S. for not doing enough. It, too, uses ally-bashing to justify its own failure. Turkey’s bad faith is obvious, but Obama’s goes further.

Turkey is right that Obama needs to decide if he wants to win — not just get America’s allies to stick out their necks without destroying the Islamic State and then face retaliation from it for years to come.

Turkey is right that Obama has to make a choice on Syria: either a U.S.-Europe-Turkey coalition to destroy both the Islamic State and Assad, or else a U.S.-Europe-Russia-Assad coalition to destroy the Islamic State. Either choice could win the war. The most likely way to lose the war is to keep sitting on the fence – getting help from neither Assad nor Turkey, and keeping Syria in an unending stalemated war. Stalemated civil war was something that Kerry stated months ago as his objective in Syria, in the name of peace negotiations. It was this U.S. policy that grew the Islamic State into a serious danger in the first place.

Turkey is right that Obama should enforce U.S. border controls against terrorists entering and leaving — not indulge his Left base’s preference for unrestricted migration and immigration while demanding that Turkey do whatever is needed at its own borders against the Islamic State.

This doesn’t justify Turkey’s long failure to close its own border to Islamic State fighters, nor its use of border-closing as a means of keeping Kurds from reinforcing their brethren across the border while the Islamic State is overrunning them – a way of meeting Obama’s formal demands about the border while cheating him in the process.

This reveals something basic about border controls: They are not abstract rules to apply with blind uniformity, but concrete strategic choices of a concrete society. The Left calls for waiving U.S. border controls because of the strategic needs of the Left, not America. Turkey manages its border controls to fit its government’s strategy. If we want Turkey’s strategy to fit ours, we have to work for that goal concretely, not just tell Turkey to close the border in the abstract.

Constructing international cooperation or deconstructing it?

The U.N. Security Council passed a strong resolution, UNSC 2178, legally requiring all countries to cooperate against terrorists, including enforcement of tough border controls to stop terrorist transit and prosecution by every country of those within it who are engaged in travel for terrorism or are financing or helping encourage or organize it. Obama pushed it through and demanded that others comply, but he is unlikely to comply himself. It conflicts with his false interpretation of the Constitution and of American principles.

Obama certainly “believes in” international cooperation and organization, but this does not mean he knows how to build it or even sustain what there is of it. It requires leadership, realism, and commitment, including commitment to fighting without reservation for the good side in the common struggles that throw countries together.

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Building serious, effective, reliable, enduring international collaboration is not easy. It is so hard, and so important, that, when successful, it counts among the noblest achievements of statesmanship. America has led in making remarkable advances in international collaboration since 1914, at a high cost. In the face of a life-and-death war, countries come together to save themselves. They can become willing to subordinate their previously sovereign forces to a supreme commander, particularly one from a country they trust as much as they used to trust the U.S., rather than go down to the enemy.

It was the two world wars, and the unique standing of the U.S. as the enormously powerful and relatively fair-minded and objective integrator of Europe, that made possible the development of the supreme allied commander and allied political council, which NATO institutionalized for the long haul. This in turn underpinned the development of the European Union, initiated by the U.S. along a parallel line of causation through the Marshall Plan and OEEC. This is a patrimony paid for in rivers of blood, not to be thrown away for the sake of rhetoric.

How could it be thrown away? The Euro-Atlantic system has serious vulnerabilities. The EU has looked weaker in this recession than it has in several decades, but at least it still enjoys support from the cultural elites. NATO lacks even that support; it is declared obsolete and doomed to die every couple of years by leading pundits. A lost war often brings down national governments; it is even more likely to bring down an international alliance.

The wider, post-2001 coalition is already unraveling.

Turkey has thrown away a golden opportunity to be a hero to its Kurds and instead has come to the edge of reigniting its long war with them. It has not been neutral; it has been on the other side — against the Kurds, and halfway on the Islamic State’s side — not because it loves the Islamic State, but because we have not been serious about leading our own side strongly enough to hold our side together.

There are always contradictions among independent entities. Serious alliances can be put together only by a serious leading power (or group of leading powers with the same main interests) that gathers others around it. America made that effort in the 20th century. It was a huge effort, made in tandem with terrible costs in the global wars, and it bore tremendous fruits. Obama’s anti-hero methods are undoing America’s great achievements.

The U.S. is inevitably the leading power of the present coalition. It called the coalition together and is its organizing power. But it is refusing to lead and failing to organize.

While it was George W. Bush who brought the present coalition together in 2001, the 2014 crisis with the Islamic State has provided an occasion to call it back into action. It could have served to reinvigorate the coalition, reinforce its cohesion, and build it up for future shared benefit — the win-win outcome that internationalists always wish for and that serious ones use the pressures of war to achieve.

But instead of refurbishing the coalition for better present and future use, Obama may destroy it. All he needs to do is keep letting its national contradictions play out at the present pace. In wishing to revive the coalition without making the requisite effort, he may well become its undertaker.

The coalition, in its 2001 edition, was rooted in the Atlantic alliance that had begun 1917 and had expanded its membership repeatedly since then — in 1941, in 1949, in the 1950s, after 1989; that had accrued several major East Asian affiliates; and that had built around itself an additional system of global partnerships after 1991, first in the post-Soviet space, then in the Mediterranean, African, and Asian spaces. This was already a global alliance-plus-partnerships system. Additional pieces of the coalition came in ad hoc. Bush in the 21st century thus assembled, in a new activated form, the coalition-alliance that American diplomacy had put together in face of the three worst global conflicts of the 20th century.

This is what is at risk of unraveling.

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The NATO core is still free of contradictions on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Brits, French, Americans — and Aussies, too — are all shooting at the same enemy, not at cross-purposes.

But Westerners and Turks, and Turks and Kurds, and Shiites, and anti-Assad Sunnis — they are fighting at cross-purposes.

The overall coalition, which is essential for fighting global terrorism, is already at risk. And if the war is lost, it would place the inner alliance at risk, too. It would damage its reputation within each of its member countries. They would ask, “Why stick our necks out for America and the others, if they are not serious about winning? We lose lives and money for nothing, and we bring the terrorists’ revenge down on ourselves.” It is not only Americans who would draw isolationist-style conclusions.

Looking back at all the comments in the media and among elites about the obsolescence and irrelevance of NATO — including intense public discussion along these lines after the wars in Libya and Kosovo, which NATO won — it is probable that there will be real momentum to dissolve NATO if the NATO-based global coalition loses this war.

Losing allies, gaining enemies

Reputation matters. Credibility matters. A global leader will not have allies if it fights to lose.

And America needs its allies. Without its unique role as leader of the global alliance system, America really would be at risk of getting replaced by China as the predominant power of the world.

The world also needs the alliance system. It is the operational core of the world order, the thing that enables the U.N. to work at all, unlike the League of Nations. Pulling out America means pulling the plug on the entire world system, not just on a few friends in need.

If Obama manages to undermine this overall coalition-alliance, he will have done damage on a world-historic scale – more damage than his worst enemies thought he could do, more damage than he himself ever dreamed of doing in his days as what is euphemistically called a “community organizer.”

He will have undone the main achievement of a century of American diplomacy. He will have retrospectively caused our dead, all the millions of dead on our side of the world wars, to have died for the most part in vain. He will have returned the world to the chaos that led to the world wars of the 20th century – and done this in the much more dangerous conditions of the 21st century, with nuclear weapons widespread, new WMDs ever emerging, and the Islamist terrorist movement present in nearly every corner of the globe.

And in the Mideast itself? He will have made the Islamic State a victor that can go on to do damage on a wider scale, and made it a hero of the Islamic world.

This is something he is already doing for the Islamic State. It is fast becoming the one state that has been able to stand up to the West and not get routed almost overnight. It already contrasts sharply, and favorably, with such seemingly powerful ordinary states as Saddam’s Iraq and is proving more enduring even than the Taliban state. This may be due less to its own strengths than to the fact that the U.S. is not fighting to win, but that does not change the effect on mass perceptions.

Has it become a national interest to weaken Obama politically?

Obama is fast turning the Islamic State into the one small state in the entire world that is able to beat back “the Empire” — what millions think of as the Empire of the West and of Christendom. It is becoming a very real state in the minds of millions. Its very name lays claim to being their state. If it endures — and in presentations and analyses of Obama-administration strategy, it is already assumed that the Islamic State will endure for years before we can whittle it back very far — it will validate this claim and command the loyalties of large numbers everywhere. This will enable it to do colossal harm. The damage will be compounded if Western unity is meanwhile unraveling.

It is more damage than we can afford.

It leads me — a person who spends an inordinate amount of time on foreign-policy analysis, with a view to wishing for America’s success under all presidencies, its being too important for partisanship — to favor at this time every means of pressure on Obama that can be found to get him to fight to win in this war, including even means that his supporters will call unfair, simplistic, crude, mean-spirited, politically motivated, whatever.

President Obama has subordinated vital national and global interests to his own political and ideological sympathies. This gives a new, positive meaning to “political motivations” against him; it turns them into authentic national-interest motivations. Opposing President Carter became, by 1979, a matter of national interest. Opposing Obama has become equally or more a matter of national interest.

Reducing Obama’s base in Congress to minority status becomes an act of defending the national interest. So does election to Congress of solid foreign-policy candidates, neither too liberal nor too libertarian.

In 2016, America will elect a new president, hopefully for the better. Until then, there are two very dangerous years ahead. Americans have to use what levers they can find to hold the existing president responsible for their vital interests in this period.

— Ira Straus is executive director of Democracy International and U.S. coordinator of the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO. The opinions expressed herein are solely his own responsibility.

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