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September 04, 2014 12:36 PM Obama’s Wise Strategy: Talk Tough, Do Very Little, Buy Time to Assess and Plan

By Martin Longman

Ed is correct to note that the current war fever is reminiscent of 2002, although there are some big differences. For one, the clamor for war against the Islamic State terrorist organization is coming mostly in visceral reaction to actual beheading videos and actual, fresh, atrocities carried out in Syria and Iraq. The administration didn’t concoct this situation or cherry-pick the intelligence. They aren’t complaining about atrocities that occurred 15 years earlier.

The threat posed by the Islamic State to American hostages, religious and ethnic opponents, and our facilities in Iraq are not hypothetical. They are very real. Whether the organization presents a direct “existential” threat to our homeland is a matter of dispute within the Intelligence Community, but as Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently said, they are an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” adding, “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

Perhaps Hagel employed a bit of hyperbole there, but he’s right that the growth of the Islamic State threatens American interests even if they don’t necessarily threaten us (presently) inside our borders.

The question is, is there anything we can do about these threats that won’t make matters worse, that won’t come with unacceptable risks and costs, that will be able to work in a timely manner and have an end game, and that can sustain the support of our allies, Congress, and the people?

To date, the conflict in Syria (where the Islamic State originated) has not presented positive answers to the above questions. At the most basic level, the conflict in Syria has had a sectarian Sunni/Shia divide almost from the beginning. When Bashar al-Assad claimed that his opponents were terrorists, it was more true that we at first wanted to admit. In a reverse of the demographics of Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Syria is a Sunni-majority country run by a Shia-splinter sect known as the Alawites. Opposition to Assad began as an ecumenical affair, but it didn’t take long for the Sunni powers to realize there was an opportunity to win control of the country for their sect. This made it incredibly complicated for U.S. foreign policy leaders to actively side with Assad’s opponents because it would have been seen as a deep betrayal in Baghdad and greatly complicated negotiations with Teheran over their nuclear program. We did not want to take a side in a sectarian war both on principle and for practical reasons. This ambivalence greatly irritated our Sunni allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf Emirates, but it was better than the alternative.

What has changed is that these same Sunni allies who bear most of the responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State are now quite alarmed by what they have created. As far back as February, the Saudis replaced Prince Bandar as their go-to guy for arming the Syrian rebels. In June, some of the top Saudi clerics issued fatwas banning travel to Syria to wage jihad. And just on Monday, the Saudis arrested 17 men for attempting to travel to Iraq and gave them long prison sentences. Meanwhile, the governor of the Sunni stronghold of Anbar Province (home of Falluja) came out against the Islamic State and begged for American assistance in resisting them.

In Baghdad, the government of Maliki stopped accusing the Kurds of harboring terrorists and annexing territory and agreed to send them ammunition. Maliki agreed to step down as prime minister and Haider al-Abadi, a man known for less sectarian tendencies, took over with the mission to form a coalition government. Every government in the region, regardless of sectarian makeup, agreed to al-Abadi’s appointment.

So, what’s going on here is that what had been an escalating sectarian war that had ripped both Syria and Iraq apart is now becoming something a little different and, perhaps, more promising.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are at least to some degree on the same page about who is in charge in Baghdad and what to do about the Islamic State. The government in Baghdad is reconciled with the Kurds for the time being, at least for the purposes of fighting the Islamic State.

This is the context in which President Obama has sent envoys to the region to develop a plan. To see if a plan can be concocted that meets the above criteria, the president, more than anything, needs time. And that’s the best way to understand the bellicose statements from Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. In saying that we will not tolerate these beheadings and will chase the murderers to the “Gates of Hell,” Biden and Kerry are assuaging the bloodlust aroused by these killings and keeping the Democrats from creating distance from the administration in their impatience for decisive action. The administration will do something, but they aren’t ready to do anything, yet. Unlike the last administration, this administration strives to understand the complicated world as it is and not make commitments based on delusions that have no chance of success.

So, give them some time. It’s what they need, and they’ll be less likely to screw up if they have the space and time to think.

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