If the US Wants to Defeat ISIS, Obama Must Take the Lead
Iran’s nuclear weapons program is not the only deadly threat to America and its allies currently being botched by Washington. Close behind, and for many related reasons, is the metastasizing peril of ISIS. Although not yet the existential nuclear threat to Israel and nearby Arab monarchies Tehran is fast becoming, ISIS is nonetheless a more imminent terrorist danger for us all.
As U.S. counter-proliferation policy collapsed in the Vienna nuclear deal, our counter-terrorism policy was also collapsing across North Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. President Obama’s inadequate efforts to defeat the terrorists in their homelands were coming apart. Even news of longtime Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s death (two years ago, and in his bed!) has not brightened America’s prospects.
Obama repeatedly has characterized his goal as degrading and ultimately defeating ISIS. But his policies do not even vaguely match his rhetoric. Moreover, the complexity of the hostilities involving ISIS, now underway in more than half-a-dozen countries, seems beyond the administration’s grasp.
America can reverse this slide. But time is short. Indeed, by Obama’s last day in office, it might be too late. By then, ISIS could consolidate a new terrorist state from bits of Syria and Iraq, making pre-9/11 al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan look like Obama’s famous “JV” team.
Startling twists and turns in recent weeks demonstrate how the Middle East is descending into chaos. Consider just a few examples.
The White House recently authorized the Pentagon to use force to protect — whether from ISIS or from Bashar al-Assad’s forces — the “moderate” Syrian opposition, which has been poorly vetted, trained and equipped. Of course, the “moderates” were supposed to be the ones carrying the fight to Assad.
But Obama’s policy has been so inept they apparently cannot even defend themselves, let alone contemplate offensive action. One can only ask when the word “quagmire” first will be applied to these circumstances where Obama has now committed our forces.
Turkey initially encouraged anti-Assad rebels against its longtime adversary but has reversed itself after realizing that much of the opposition had joined ISIS and other terrorist gangs. And Ankara has reversed even seemingly vigorous domestic political trends in Turkey, such as rapprochement with the Kurdistan Workers Party (“PKK”), a Marxist guerrilla band seeking full Kurdish independence.
Ankara now is targeting PKK fighters, thus placing it at odds with three separate, mutually antagonistic forces on its southern border (and within Turkey itself); it is a feat of acrobatic political contortion. President Obama has been attempting to arm Iraqi Kurds, deemed friendly to the United States, but now has agreed Turkey should take military action against the PKK.
The Syrian state itself has collapsed, with every likelihood of partition, assuming Assad can even maintain control over an Alawite enclave and perhaps Damascus. He might yet fall entirely — not to those hard-to-find Syrian moderates but to ISIS.
Of course, from Assad’s perspective, the Iran nuclear deal, Obama’s latest signature achievement, could be a gravy train, representing extensive new assistance from Tehran against their mutual enemies. The same gravy train also could strengthen Hezbollah, aiding the terrorist group both in Lebanon and in its support for Assad in Syria.
Iraq also already has collapsed as a state, with the Kurds de facto independent and the Sunni Arabs determined not to be subjected to an overwhelming Shia Arab majority increasingly under the thumb of Persian ayatollahs in Tehran. In what would be a fine irony were it not both tragic and dangerous, the Obama administration has been advising Iraq’s almost entirely Shia army, dominated by Iran, the world’s central banker for terrorism.
Jordan’s monarchy, perennially in danger, today is extraordinarily vulnerable to an ISIS regime decapitation strike — and the then-inevitable descent into the same horror now engulfing Syria. And Yemen’s multi-party civil war, in which ISIS has unpredictably emerged, continues its chaotic path.
Israel, by the way, has all but lost diplomatic contact with the Obama administration.
Washington can reverse ISIS’ forward progress, but not by “leading from behind.” Arab and other regional states lack both the will and the military capability to do so on their own. They need the full measure of American leadership, political and military, and they need the tangible demonstration of U.S. commitment: our forces on the ground next to theirs. These regional states have much to lose and should bear the fullest measure of the burden. But America also is mortally at risk. We cannot afford to contract out U.S. security to weak hands.
Iran’s march toward deliverable nuclear weapons and ISIS’ march toward a global caliphate must be at the center of 2016’s presidential debates. No bromides can conceal the extent of the threat or the consequences of failure. Whoever steps up to this Gordian knot will be the president we need.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security. This article was originally published by the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.