Magazine | May 9, 2016, Issue

Obama’s Endless War

President Obama pledges to lead a broad coalition to fight ISIS, September 10, 2014. (Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty)
Refusing to prosecute an effective strategy against ISIS only prolongs the suffering.

On September 10, 2014, President Obama pledged to destroy ISIS. Three years earlier, on June 22, 2011, he declared that “the tide of war is receding.” But since he made that claim, more than half a million people have been killed just in Syria and Iraq. Currently, ISIS numbers about 20,000 fighters and controls an area of thousands of square miles in Syria and Iraq populated by roughly 4 million Sunnis.

How, specifically, does the Obama administration plan to destroy ISIS? Here’s an answer from a Pentagon spokesman: “By degrading them in Phase One and then dismantling them in Phase Two, we believe that that will set us up for Phase Three, which, of course, is the ultimate defeat of this enemy.” There are two problems with that approach. First, the administration has ruled out the use of U.S. troops in combat — which means that “dismantling” the enemy is unlikely, never mind defeating it. Second, defeating ISIS should itself be only an intermediate goal: The ultimate goal is a stable, pro-Western government after ISIS. Our huge mistake in Iraq in 2003 was not having a sensible plan for who was to govern after we defeated Saddam’s forces. By not having a plan for what happens after ISIS, the U.S. administration is today repeating that mistake.

In Obama’s view, ISIS is not a serious threat. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, after interviewing the president, reported that “Obama frequently reminds his staff that terrorism takes far fewer lives in America than . . . falls in bathtubs do.” Bathtubs don’t murder people, but in Obama’s parallel universe, the tide of history is like the gravitational pull of the moon: The course of time is gentling the nature of man. “If you look at the trajectory of history,” he said in the interview, “I am optimistic. I believe that overall, humanity has become less violent, more tolerant, healthier, better fed, more empathetic, more able to manage difference.”

Obama’s foreign policy is based upon a benign spiritualism. Other nations have taken advantage of it. Russian aircraft buzz over our warships, China constructs artificial islands to extend its control of the sea lanes, and Iran captures our sailors. These affronts occur because Obama will not stand up to provocations.

Similarly, ISIS exists because the president has flinched on a number of occasions. In 2011, against the advice of the Pentagon and the State Department, he withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq; the Shiite government in Baghdad then oppressed the Sunnis. In 2012, Obama encouraged the Syrian population, mostly Sunni, to overthrow the Assad regime (which relies on Shiite support) and declared a “red line” that Assad must not cross by using chemical weapons against the Sunni towns. When Assad did employ chemical weapons, Obama refused to respond with force, and also refused to fully train and arm the Sunni rebels. 

Since 2003, Assad had been giving shelter to Sunni jihadists and former senior officers from Saddam’s army. By 2010, most of these terrorists had been driven out of Iraq. By 2013, they had turned against Assad’s Shiite regime. Ruthless and highly organized, the jihadists swiftly gained thousands of Sunni recruits and came to dominate the “moderate” Sunni rebel groups. With Assad’s regime in mortal danger, Russian president Vladimir Putin sent in aircraft to bomb the “moderates,” while Iran dispatched Hezbollah fighters to fight alongside Assad’s. The U.S. responded by bombing the jihadists but not Assad’s forces.

By 2014, the Sunnis in Iraq, furious at their treatment by the Shiite government in Baghdad, tolerated and in many cases abetted the return of the jihadists — now called ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) rather than al-Qaeda in Iraq — to that country. Rather than fight ISIS, the Iraqi army abandoned the Sunni northern part of Iraq. Both Iran and the U.S. rushed in trainers and advisers to aid the Shiite government in Baghdad. Iran added soldiers on the battlefield, while the U.S. contributed a bombing campaign.

In mid April 2016, Obama declared that “in Syria and in Iraq, ISIS is on the defensive.” While this is undoubtedly true, ISIS can remain intact for many years. Merely increasing the bombing campaign won’t defeat it.

No war can end without someone’s boots on the ground. Retired Army general Ray Odierno has estimated that a ground offensive, even if composed mostly of Arab soldiers, would require U.S. troops on the order of 50,000. Obama has firmly rejected that idea.

So where is Obama’s war headed in his last eight months in office, and where will that leave his successor?

In the northern parts of Iraq and Syria, the Kurds already have an independent state protected by 80,000 to 240,000 Peshmerga fighters. The U.S. is aiding them with modest equipment and effective bombing. The Kurds will fight ISIS to defend the borders of a de facto Kurdistan and advance their goal of independence. Over the next decade, they will engage in a serious struggle, both political and military, with Turkey more than with ISIS. 

In the central parts of Iraq and Syria, ISIS flourishes because Assad’s Shiite regime in Syria and the Shiite government in Iraq are oppressing the Sunnis. Only Sunni Muslims can eradicate ISIS. To do so, they need the incentive of self-governance. According to prominent military analyst Joel Rayburn, even if ISIS were wiped from the earth tomorrow, the Sunni–Shiite war would continue the next day, with Iran trying to overthrow Sunni regimes.

Throughout the Middle East, Obama is viewed as having tilted toward the Iranian and Shiite side. In addition to his suspect nuclear deal with the Iranian government, he has urged the Saudis to “share the neighborhood” with Iran. In Iraq, Obama supports a sectarian government aligned with Iran. He has been unable to persuade Baghdad to grant reasonable self-rule to the Sunnis and Kurds.

Iraqi forces, whether the army with American advisers or the Shiite militias with their Iranian advisers, lack the logistical capability to retake all the Sunni lands. The distance from Baghdad to Mosul is 220 miles — the same distance as from New York City to Washington. To the Iraqi military, that is an enormous distance. While Iraq slouches toward Mosul, the residents of Fallujah, 35 miles from Baghdad, are starving. To the Sunnis, this proves the Baghdad government does not care about them, only about symbols.

As the war drags on, the Sunnis will remain embittered toward the Shiite political system and will view the U.S. as being on the Shiite side. Over 90 percent of young Iraqis in a recent poll viewed the U.S. as an enemy, and over 50 percent view Iran as an ally. The odds are low that a nonsectarian Iraq, with its current state boundaries intact and a government not in the Iranian orbit, will emerge from this Sunni–Shiite war. Yet that end state is what Obama envisions when his war ends, many years after he has left office.

In Syria, to defeat ISIS will require foreign boots on the ground. They won’t arrive for many years, if ever. Syria is permanently broken apart; the only question is who will broker the sectarian pygmy states that will emerge from it. Iran and Russia will support the future Alawite/Shiite statelet in western Syria. The odds greatly favor the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in northern Syria and Iraq, guaranteeing a decade of serious friction with Turkey. The third statelet will be an impoverished, strife-ridden Sunnistan in central Syria and northern Iraq.

When Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s, the U.S. and NATO did enforce the creation of a half dozen such statelets. Assuming there is not another attack on the scale of 9/11, however, no American president will undertake a similar mission in Mesopotamia. With 75 million people in that region, the task is much greater than the one in Yugoslavia was. The costs of a U.S.-Arab army invasion are simply not worth the benefits. The conflict between the West and both Sunni jihadists and a cunning Iran will persist for the next decade.

Obama’s policy is to dam up the financial streams of ISIS while hammering its fighters with air and artillery attacks. The next president will probably proceed along that same course, seeking to grind down the jihadists like a steamroller, slowly but steadily. This means our defense budget, which Obama has reflexively reduced, must be increased. It also means more civilian casualties and staggering damage to the cities, where the jihadists hide among the pitiable Sunni people. Regrettably, many in the Arab world will interpret this strategy as American support for Iran and its Shiite proxies. The destruction inside Iraq and Syria is worse than what occurred in Belgium and France in World War II — but these Arab populations lack the education, cultural initiative, and concern for the commonweal to snap back as Western Europe did. The Sunni region of Mesopotamia will lie in ruins for many years.

The Obama legacy in the Middle East will be a resurgent Russian military presence, an expansionist Iran, a broken Iraq, a catastrophe in Syria, chaos in Libya and Yemen, and a rampant Islamist scourge across the region. By irresolution, the president lost the war in Iraq, convulsed Syria, imperiled Afghanistan, and antagonized our traditional Sunni allies. Worse still, he convinced the American public that the decisive application of military force was not possible. Obama has said he does “not support the idea of endless war.” Yet his fecklessness has created that very condition.

– Mr. West has written eight books about the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Bing West — Bing West, a bestselling author and former assistant secretary of defense, served as a Marine grunt in Vietnam and later as a dean at the Naval War College. A graduate ...

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