After Paris, Obama Stays the Course Against Islamic State

Politicians thumping their chests are letting the shock of the attacks in Paris cloud their judgement.

President Barack Obama confers with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, as he talks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, February 6, 2013
President Barack Obama confers with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, as he talks on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, February 6, 2013 (White House/Pete Souza)

While presidential candidates from both sides want him to do more to defeat the self-declared Islamic State, Barack Obama is sticking with a strategy that is slowly pushing the fanatics back.

Virtually all the Republicans in the race to replace him next year want America to declare all-out war.

Even the two Floridians considered most worldly and more likely to win the nomination than the bombastic property tycoon Donald Trump — who is currently ahead in the polls — have taken a hard line.

The state’s former governor, Jeb Bush — who is also the brother of the last Republican president — said the Islamic State “declared war on Western civilization” when it claimed responsibility for a series of bombings and shootings in the French capital last Friday that left more than 130 dead. He proposed this week to deploy more American troops to Iraq and Syria to support the coalition effort against the radical Islamist group there.

Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, vows to do “whatever it takes” to destroy the organization.

Unlike some of his less sophisticated counterparts — like Trump — Rubio recognizes that the Islamic State cannot be defeated if Bashar Assad is allowed to remain in power. The Alawite leader deliberately radicalized the largely Sunni opposition against his regime, hoping that the rest of the world would ultimately consider him the lesser evil. As long as he sits in Damascus, there is a reason for the Islamic State to exist.

Criticism from within

Perhaps surprisingly, even Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state and now the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, has called for “more allied planes, more strikes and a broader target set” in the wake of the Paris attacks.

Her tough rhetoric underlines that Republicans may be miscalculating if they think they can out-hawk Clinton and still win a general election in 2016.

Obama, for his part, recently said his strategy is starting to pay off.

In an interview with ABC News, the president recognized that Arab and Western allies had yet to “completely decapitate their command and control structures.” But he insisted America had managed to contain the Islamic State. It controls around 25 percent less territory than it did at its peak. Only a day after the attacks in Paris, the group was pushed out of Sinjar, a city in northwestern Iraq, by a coalition of Kurdish and Yazidi fighters backed by American airpower.

The goal now, Obama said, is “to recruit more effective Sunni partners in Iraq to really go on offense rather than simply engage in defense.”

That is easier said than done.

Finding allies

Daniel DePetris, who also writes for the Atlantic Sentinel, argues in The National Interest that the liberation of Sinjar points to a success in the Obama strategy of working with local allies to flush the Islamists out.

According to coalition officials, approximately 7,500 Kurdish fighters were involved in the operation and served as the ground attack force that would supplement American and coalition airstrikes on [Islamic State] positions from above. The presence of a small number of American advisors and special operations forces on Mount Sinjar coordinating with peshmerga units in search of how American airpower could best be leveraged was an indication that the offensive was well-synchronized.

But he cautions that this strategy will be tricky to replicate further south.

Sinjar was captured without the usual Sunni-Shia tensions, DePetris points out. Elsewhere, mistrust between ethnic groups and religious sects prevents a united front from being formed against the Islamic State.

Iraq’s Sunnis were marginalized under the Shia-dominated premiership of Nouri al-Maliki. Only in the last few months, since Maliki was ousted, has the central government in Baghdad made an effort to mend this, but — as in Syria — there is still widespread Sunni discontent that the Islamic State can draw on.

Sunni support is weak

The Atlantic Sentinel reported more than a year ago that the vast majority of Sunnis is likely to give up on the Islamic State as soon as something better comes along. Few have any desire to live under its self-styled caliphate.

Ryan Bohl notes at his blog Geopolitics Made Super that the group’s seventh-century ideology marginalizes half the population (women) and values brutality and religious learning over creative thinking and compromise. Those aren’t the qualities of a long-term state project.

All of that means Islamic State won’t be able to organize its millions of subjects into a modern economy, which in turn will mean it will, over time, have a harder and harder time paying salaries, supplying troops and carrying out the business of government.

Oil revenue has so far made up the difference but it appears a concerted effort is finally underway to cut off this source of funding. (Another area in which the Assad regime has helped the Islamic State.)

Let it destroy itself

Bohl predicts that unless the Islamic State adapts, its own ideology will bankrupt it.

The American Interest‘s Adam Garfinkle has similarly argued that the group represents the last hurrah of political Islam and will ultimately destroy itself.

This is the end. It can’t get any more radical, primitivist, delusional, nihilistic and self-destructive. When it crashes and burns, nearly every sentient Muslim will see clearly that Islam, in this distorted militarized form, is certainly not “the answer.”

The United States and European allies are helping to speed up the process, but the West cannot — and should not — defeat the Islamic State on its own.

The Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven A. Cook told the National Journal this summer that the struggle is really “a political and theological fight that is largely beyond the United States.”

Washington must resist the typical — and laudable — American inclination to try to resolve many of the problems that have led to the current environment in the Middle East. Washington has a responsibility to help its allies, but the stakes are so high for the local actors that American efforts to influence the trajectory of politics in the region are unlikely to be successful.

Politicians thumping their chests and lamenting Obama’s timidity in this fight are allowing the shock of what happened in Paris last week to cloud their judgement. The Islamic State is not America’s dragon to slay. Nor are Americans in a mood to do “whatever it takes” to root out the organization — at least not as long as it doesn’t seem to pose a serious threat to their own country.

Obama’s strategy, of gradually reducing the territory the Islamic State controls, the prowess it can bring to the battlefield and the appeal it has to would-be jihadists around the world, may not be very inspiring. But it does appear to be working.