National Security & Defense

U.S. Dithering on ISIS Continues

Rafale fighters aboard the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty)

Ever since the aftermath of the last election, I have been intermittently inflicting upon readers my chirpy view that however grim things got in the home stretch with Obama, the watching world could be confident that the next president would have a clearer and more rigorous idea of the U.S. national-security interest and would uphold it vigorously. This meant expressing confidence in Hillary Clinton’s comparatively robust view of America’s role in the world, as well as in the ability of the Republican nominating process to elevate a more coherent and articulate candidate than it has since Ronald Reagan. Although the Bushes won three terms between them, they were pitted against weaker candidates than Hillary, and even the 2000 election against Gore was effectively a draw in which the Democrats won the popular vote and the Republican majority on the Supreme Court shut down the recount process (and probably had no choice, given the shambles of interpreting voters’ intentions in Florida — the dangling chads and so forth).

Less than a year before the 2016 election, the picture is cloudier than I had anticipated. Hillary Clinton is obviously the Democratic candidate and should not be underestimated, although she has never really been electorally tested, and is trailing all the major Republican candidates in all polls, though often narrowly. I have always assumed that she would depart from Obama’s pacifism and would act as if American strength were a good thing in the world, if she were in command of it. She has been somewhat restrained in the traditional saber-rattling candidates engage in, threatening those who “use the U.S. flag as a doormat” (as George Wallace used to say). I assumed that the reason for that was that she needed to put some distance between herself and Obama, but not so much that the Obamists sit on their hands during the election campaign and on Election Day. In the last Democratic debate and in an address at the Council on Foreign Relations last week, she took some distance from the Obama anti-ISIS policy, which seems to be to do as little as American public opinion will allow, no matter how destructive ISIS becomes in the West.

Mrs. Clinton wants to replicate the tactics of the 2007 surge, which she opposed at the time (but has conceded that she did so for entirely domestic political reasons), and she is prepared to bypass the pitiful remnant of a regime in Baghdad in doing it. The Iraqi government has lost the Shiites (60 percent of Iraqis) to Iran, and the Kurds (20 percent) to a long-suppressed autonomy movement, and is contesting control of the Sunni remainder with ISIS thanks only to Western air forces and military advisers. Obama has swaddled himself in the ostensible legitimacy of the failed Baghdad regime, a creation of the George W. Bush administration. This formalism enables him to adhere to his policy of almost unconditional appeasement of militant Islam, whether clerical (ISIS, Iran) or secular (Assad in Syria).

The Obama anti-ISIS policy seems to be to do as little as American public opinion will allow, no matter how destructive ISIS becomes in the West.

Mrs. Clinton does favor intensified bombing and an augmented and more intimate effort to advise and encourage Iraqi resistance to ISIS, and she disputed Obama’s enthusiasm for allying the West with Russia and Iran, against ISIS, but without believably proposing the insertion of forces more unambiguously acceptable to the West, including Americans, to reduce dependence on Russia and Iran in that fight. She is right to distrust association with those countries, but she believes success can be achieved by retaining the existing expeditionary force of the 50 supplemental advisers that Obama sent in his last endeavor to satisfy the shrieks of incredulity that have generally greeted his whole half-hearted effort against ISIS, which he modestly introduced last year as “American leadership at its best.” The Clinton program at least makes it sound as if she wants to defeat ISIS, but this is the same person who pretended that the Gaza and settlements agreement with Ariel Sharon never happened, botched and lied about the murder of the American ambassador in Benghazi, gave her infamous address to the Muslims of the world, and truckled to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in 2011. And although she is more purposeful about defeating ISIS than Obama is, she still imagines it can be done without spending anything or risking any casualties. It is progress but far from a solution, and is not credible from a major-party nominee for the U.S. presidency.

Unfortunately, we can be reasonably confident that unless ISIS is militarily annihilated in Iraq and Syria, it will continue to disguise the fact that the Iranian and Russian forces and their protégés are gradually defeating it in that region — by continuing outrages against civilian populations in the West, on the Paris model. (The Iranian leader, Khamenei, has responded to the Obama-led concession of his right to nuclear weapons within ten years, and sooner if he wishes, by accusing the United States of being the sponsor of ISIS.)

The French government has responded admirably to the Paris outrage and is preparing to cooperate with the Russians in attacking ISIS, and may be able to commit some elite forces directly to the fight, in support of Western-acceptable local forces, disorganized and discouraged though they are. It would be a salutary experience for the United States to be bypassed in its effort to immobilize the entire Western Alliance in the desultory anti-ISIS effort. This stubbornly imposed indolence is apparently based on Obama’s Islamophilia, pacifism, and historical skepticism of the uses of American military power, but it has furnished a convenient excuse for the entire Western Alliance, such as it remains, to follow the American lead in doing as little as possible, in accord with slack public opinion. In France after the Charlie Hebdo and November 13 outrages, public opinion is a good deal more demanding than it was — and is — elsewhere in the West, and any serious effort by the French, such as the 40 aircraft on the carrier Charles de Gaulle, which has just arrived in theater, and 5,000 to 10,000 Foreign Legionnaires, would make a real difference, and probably be met with at least an increased air mission from the British. (Prime Minister David Cameron says he will seek parliamentary approval, but as he now has a large majority of the MPs, that is a mere formality.) Without Obama’s stifling the Alliance like a great toad squatting on it, it could come back partially to life and greet the incoming American president with a crisp salute, rather than the long-prevalent lethargy.

On this issue, several of the Republican candidates sound plausible, and Rubio, Bush, Fiorina, and Christie have well-thought-out suggestions. Donald Trump is not long on detail but could undoubtedly be counted on to end the current policy, in which the Alliance has been downplayed and the U.S. has been content to second Iranian and Russian efforts to extend their influence while they hold the U.S. up to the most merciless mockery it has ever received from other powers with whom it was ostensibly cooperating.

Where the shoe changes feet is on the issue of refugees. It is understandable, especially as there is much bombastic talk of expelling up to 11 million illegal Latin American immigrants, that the admission of refugees from the Middle East is not greeted with unlimited enthusiasm. Of course they would have to be screened carefully, and of course that process could be time-consuming and could be outwitted in some cases. Much of that concern could be avoided by admitting a large number of Christians, as there are no Christian jihadists. But the demand of the far Republican Right that the distinguished new speaker, Paul Ryan, vote against funding Obama’s proposed assistance to refugees is an outrage.

The refugees from Iraq and Syria, and particularly the large number of Christians among them, are the premier victims of those who committed the atrocities in Paris, and their suffering should not be intensified as a response to the terrorist outrages of which they were the first victims. More directly relevant to members of the American government, including the Congress, is the fact that the principal cause of these vast flights of desperate people is the incompetent meddling of the United States in the Middle East. From the ousting of the shah in Iran to the ousting of an evil secular government in Iraq that at least respected Christian religious minorities, to its deliberately inadequate response to the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS, the United States has contributed nothing but disruption to that region since Camp David, apart from the Gulf War’s removal of Iraq from Kuwait. Obviously, the United States can’t accept unlimited numbers of refugees and must be careful to avoid the admission of undesirable people. It recognized its moral duties in these matters after the Vietnam debacle. A policy of “One is too many” toward this entire mass of horribly stricken people would break new and dangerous ground in American policy, compounding gross strategic blundering with vile inhumanity. Here, President Obama’s position has considerable merit, and he is partially supported by serious Republicans, including Senator Rubio.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full.

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