The Corner

Obama’s ISIS Strategy Is No Better than the Allies Hiding Behind the Maginot Line in World War II

Every reasonable person who watched President Obama’s speech Sunday night knows two things.

The first is that Obama’s strategy in dealing with the growing threat of ISIS is failing.

The second is that the president is determined to stay on this current disastrous course, come what may — no matter how many innocent people, including Americans, die in the meantime.

And Obama is not alone. His views on how to deal with ISIS reflect a consensus within the Democratic party and the academic Left that the ISIS threat, and radical Islam generally, will eventually go away if we do and say nothing provocative (like calling the threat “radical Islam”). The real danger, goes the argument, is that we’ll do something bold and stupid, i.e., the equivalent of invading Afghanistan or occupying Iraq, that will provoke a massive pro-ISIS reaction among ordinary Muslims, and make things worse.

The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart, a reliable Obama bottle holder, argues this point in a recent column.

There is one problem with this argument. ISIS is turning out to be strongest in the very places where the Obama strategy has been the most passive — and that’s not just in Syria and Iraq.

In Libya, where the Obama-ites helped to topple dictator Moammar Qaddafi but then pointedly refused to send in American “occupiers” or “boots on the ground” even as chaos ensued and the American ambassador was murdered, ISIS has now established a strong foothold, with thousands of Libyan ISIS volunteers flooding into Iraq and Syria to join the jihad.

Iraq, of course, is the best example of where Obama inherited a favorable strategic situation, pulled out American troops and support, and thus opened the door to ISIS. Now a report from the Institute for the Study of War indicates that the same thing may be happening in Afghanistan.

Since the death of the Taliban’s key leader Muhammed Omar some years ago, the Islamist guerrilla group has been in disarray and crippled by infighting. Instead of taking advantage of the Taliban’s weakness, however, Obama has chosen to weaken our presence there — while media reports like the one of the bombing of the hospital in Kunduz, buttress the belief that we can’t leave Afghanistan too quickly.

Unfortunately, ISIS has stepped into the growing Afghan power vacuum. It now controls key villages in Nangarhar province, located a few miles east of the capital, Kabul. As ISIS’s operations expand, military experts expect them to launch attacks on U.S. and Afghan army forces in Jalalabad, the provincial capital. Even if the attacks fail, they would be spectacular proof that ISIS has seized the initiative in Afghanistan while the U.S. continues to lead from behind — or more precisely, continues to turn and run.

Which brings us back to Obama’s failing strategy. Historical analogies are never exact, but suppose the Allies in the Second World War had decided the best way to defeat Nazi Germany was to do or say nothing for fear it might provoke a Nazi “overreaction.”

Imagine if the Allies decided that the best response to Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia or invasion of Poland was to avoid any over overt military response, for fear it might alienate Germans who opposed Hitler.

Absurd? Yet that is exactly what the Allies, i.e., Britain and France, did in 1939–40. As Hitler overran Poland, and began rounding up the Jews of central Europe, the British and French cowered behind the Maginot Line, assuming that its powerful defenses would keep them safe.

It didn’t. Instead, it only gave Hitler time to prepare and perfect the kind of war that the Allies were least prepared to face, a Blitzkrieg war, that rendered the Maginot Line irrelevant — and brought catastrophe to France and near-defeat to Great Britain.

Again, historical analogies are rarely exact. But the fact is, drone strikes on ISIS have become Obama’s Maginot Line. If he imagines playing the waiting game is going to defeat a confident and fanatical foe like ISIS, we can expect more Nangarhars — and more San Bernardinos.

Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the author of, most recently, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2021).

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