Obama's ISIS Paralysis

Richard Epstein*

Richard Epstein

Richard Epstein

The recent events in Paris and elsewhere have led the leaders of the civilized world to search for an appropriate response to the barbaric actions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. The toll of deaths, injuries, and property damage all point to a single conclusion: something powerful must be done, and done now. In spite of this, during an intense press conference in Turkey, President Obama doubled-down on his current strategy, despite the pushback from an ever-more skeptical press corps: “The equation,” Jerome Cartillier of AFP said, “has clearly changed. Isn't it time for your strategy to change?” The centerpiece of Obama’s flawed strategy is the refusal to commit American ground troops to more than a marginal role in seeking to drive ISIS from the extensive territories that it occupies in Syria and Iraq.

The President’s policy stems from an emphatic rejection of Pax Americana, or the view that the United States’ military force is the anchor of the free world’s security. Indeed, my own decidedly pessimistic appraisal of the dire consequences of Obama’s ISIS policy sadly underestimated the massive level of dislocation and violence that would follow from the President’s insistence that patience is required before an entity like ISIS is “ultimately” destroyed.

But what horrors must innocent people endure in the interim? How many more of them have to be slaughtered because of their religious beliefs? How many millions of refugees have to be driven from their homes to escape death and subjugation at the hands of ISIS? How many tens of millions of people in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have to sit on tenterhooks not knowing where or when the next terrorist attack will take place? How long must Brussels stay under lockdown? Of these realities the President says not one word. His current aloofness cannot be defended to an international audience on the pious ground that the likelihood of an immediate terrorist attack on the United States seems to be low.

So what then should be done? At this point, the only reasonable response includes a military option. But, by the same token, the self-imposed restraint that the President places on the use of ground troops is likely to rule out any and all strategies that could take the fight to ISIS. Nor is there any reason to think that Hillary Clinton’s proposal of a no-fly zone would do much to curb ISIS. ISIS does not even have its own air force. The simple truth is that airpower cannot dislodge entrenched people on the ground. That point became painfully clear to the Israelis when, in March of 2002, they had to confront the reality of the Second Intifada. They did so by going door-to-door to root out the terrorists from their nests. There is no guarantee that this strategy can have the same effect in the larger and more complex regions of Iraq and Syria that are now under ISIS control. But the alternative approach of grinding them down slowly, over time through the air, gives them all too much leeway to further establish their own positions on the ground.

The President is reluctant to commit ground forces because of America’s troubled history of involvement in Iraq. The common argument there is that the United States made a foolish decision to invade Iraq with ground forces in 2003. The invasion, the argument goes, ultimately and inexorably led twelve years later to the current situation in Iraq. In the words of Peter Beinart, writing in The Atlantic, the Bush administration held the illusion that “it could shatter the Iraqi state and then quickly and cheaply construct a new one that was stable, liberal, democratic, and loyal to the United States.”

Yet the history of what happened is far more complex than this simple-minded indictment of the invasion suggests. We cannot assume that Iraq and the Middle East would have turned out any better, or into a bed of roses, if the United States had just held its hand. No one knows what the alternative history would have been with Saddam Hussein still in power and the United States on the sidelines. Nonetheless, given the endemic turmoil in that region, it is likely that the next dozen years would have been filled with their own unfortunate twists and turns, some of which could have required American military intervention later on, and perhaps even on less favorable terms.

More importantly, it is a mistake to attribute the current situation to the initial decision to invade, in light of all that followed. There is little doubt, for example, that the decision in 2004 to root out thousands of Baathists from government positions greatly contributed to the internal discord inside Iraq. Even at the time, it seemed that the more sensible strategy was to keep all but a handful of key Baathists in their government positions to avoid creating the resentment that fueled social and political unrest that reached epic proportions by 2006.

At this point, the history turns to a systematic evaluation of the surge that George W. Bush put into place in early 2007, headed by General David Petraeus, which ultimately brought 30,000 new troops to Iraq. At the time, many prominent political leaders, including then Senator Barack Obama, predicted that the surge would be a massive failure. At the time, Senator Obama said: “I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq is going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.”

But his dire prediction proved false. In retrospect, it was clear that David Petraeus and his key staff organized, in the General’s own words, “a comprehensive strategy.” This strategy included taking the fight to the enemy, but required far more by way of coordination with local allied forces; it also required efforts to embed American troops in the local communities in which the violence was the greatest in order to reassure civilian populations that the United States was on their side. Beyond this, the United States had to walk the tightrope between warring factions of Sunnis and Shiites, and indeed Petraeus chose to bankroll many groups that had previously engaged in attacks against American military personnel and bases. It was a hard slog, but the violence and the casualty rates began to drop toward the end of 2007, and continued to decline throughout 2008, so that by the time President Obama took office in January 2009, many of the major blunders of the early war had been largely corrected.

But Beinart criticizes the surge. He claims that the positive outcomes occurred “fortuitously” because many Sunnis had turned against al-Qaeda’s senseless brutality. But Sunni leaders only had the option of turning against al-Qaeda precisely because they had someone in the form of Petraeus who could back them up with force and other forms of assistance. It is of course true that a meltdown took place once the United States failed to make the Iraqi “government more inclusive.” But the blame for that failure lies squarely on Obama’s shoulders. Even before he took office, his rhetoric was that of a tired loser heading for the exits, which meant that everyone knew that the United States was no longer able to broker, with both promises and threats, the endless tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis.

Obama’s position was always that the United States would back any unified government that emerged in Iraq. But that position got things exactly backwards, for the only way that the unified front could emerge was for Iraqis to believe that the United States would stay for as long as was needed, which would ensure enough stability existed so that the new government could succeed. It is far easier to keep a stable position stable, and thereby to pave the way, as Petraeus envisioned, for a slow drawing down of American troops, than it is to have to mount a major new assault against a hostile enemy from scratch. A proper completion of the initial Bush strategy would not have generated a Middle Eastern utopia, but it would have generated a more stable Iraq—which, in turn, could have blocked the ability of ISIS to conquer much of Iraq over the feeble resistance of the disorganized and demoralized Iraqi army.

There is a clear lesson to take away from the surge: the sustained use of force on the model of Petraeus is not, as Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman claims, some “fantasy” that is necessarily doomed to fail. It is only doomed to fail if our indecisive President employs half measures to take down ISIS. In one sense, an attack on ISIS might prove easier than one on Saddam, who, after all, had all the prerogatives of a nation state. ISIS has no legitimacy in the territories that it controls, in sharp contrast, for example, to the Afghan tribal chiefs who enjoy fierce local support. A coordinated attack against ISIS modeled on the 2007 surge could probably start to have an immediate effect. Of course, it would not neutralize other attacks from outposts in other countries. But so long as those operations are taken from individual safe houses, it should be possible, as has happened in France, for local police and military units to root them out of their hiding places.

At this juncture, the President has to confront the painful reality that the overall security of Europe and the Middle East has declined precipitously since he took office. So too has the prestige and influence of the United States. Nonetheless, his current stand is at once defiant and delusional. He speaks of his “comprehensive strategy using all elements of our power—military, intelligence, economic, development, and the strength of our communities.” But the military component of this program has been about 8,000 airstrikes, which works out over the past 430 days to fewer than 20 sorties per day in a territory that is the size of the United Kingdom.

It is pointless for the President to speak about smallish territorial adjustments while ignoring the huge caches of military materiel at the disposal of ISIS, and its millions of dollars of oil revenue from the areas that it controls. It is also a mistake for him to think of humanitarian aid to the refugees as a viable long-term strategy, given that it imposes enormous financial, logistical, and security issues on the sagging economies of Europe and the Middle East. That situation will only get worse unless some strong steps are taken to stop the underlying violence causing the current flow of refugees. His weak leadership is generating major divisions in public sentiment as people are forced to grapple with the difficult trade-offs between compassion on the one hand and national safety on the other.

A president has to play the hand that he is dealt, and not wish that the world were a kinder place. President Obama cannot hope to win the struggle against ISIS with the long game when he is clearly losing the short game. There is no reason to think that the Paris disaster is the last one that will hit Europe, or that a similar attack could not strike the United States. The only way to ensure the security of America and its allies is to commit ground troops against ISIS in the Middle East. 

*Considered one of the most influential thinkers in legal academia, Richard Epstein is known for his research and writings on a broad range of constitutional, economic, historical, and philosophical subjects.

Syria and American Leadership

Richard Epstein

A major question of political theory and statecraft is: What justifies the use of force, and when shall it be exercised? This issue is particularly relevant today given recent events in the Middle East. As a nation, we are struggling with many tough issues. Should we attack Syria? Should we launch a preemptive strike against Iran? Should we back a repressive regime in Egypt?

Everyone accepts, as a normative matter, the basic libertarian credo that, to exit the state of nature, individuals should agree to the mutual renunciation of force, without which social order is not possible. This social contract ends bloodshed and angst, allowing human cooperation to flourish. But the implementation of the policy is treacherous. How does society create a state strong enough to control private aggression, but not so strong that it itself becomes a greater source of aggression?

Of course, libertarian theory says that a nation that is attacked can defend itself. But beyond that noncontroversial principle, libertarian theory has nothing to say about a range of complex questions, such as what level of precaution is needed prior to attack, whether a preemptive strike is permissible in light of the seriousness of the threat, the likely success of the response, and the danger of collateral damages. Libertarian theory is also weak in dealing with uncertainty. But this is not simply a deficit of libertarian thinking. No theory can answer these questions. At most, theory informs the debate.

Nor does the inquiry get any easier by asking how a nation should respond to deadly attacks on innocent nations or innocent people. On this score, think of the domestic analogy to the international situation. If A sees B attack C in a dark alley, what should A do? Libertarian theory says that A cannot join B in attacking C. But it says nothing on the hard choices that remain. Should A seek to prevent B from attacking C, and run the risk of getting wounded or killed, without saving C? Or should A stand aside, at which point B’s attack succeeds against C, and emboldens B and others to try that same tactic again in the near future.

The choices are every bit as hard, and the stakes are higher, in the international arena. No theory of rights explains whether to exercise our admitted right to sit any struggle out, or our admitted right to assist the threatened target, and how. This is not to say that we should throw up our hands in despair and roll the dice. The only workable approach rests on a cold-blooded set of utilitarian calculations that examines each of the possible scenarios with an effort to determine its costs and benefits. But how?

In looking at Syria, it does not take much insight to realize that the Russians have played the United States for suckers. The United States looks as though it has been bullied off the stage by the Russians who now are in the dominant position of quarantining Syrian chemical weapons that for all we know could have been acquired from Russia or its allies. The process of verification by the United States at two steps removed is likely to prove hopeless, now that the Syrians have dispersed their chemical weapons. The administration’s waffling has led to the grave deterioration of America’s bargaining position.

Bad Bargaining, Rand Paul Style

Part of the difficulty lies with the Senate’s most prominent libertarian voice, Rand Paul, who recently wrote in the Washington Times:

I will not vote to send my son, your son or anyone’s daughter to war unless a compelling American interest is present. I am not convinced that we have a compelling interest in the Syrian civil war, and I will push for a permanent delay of this vote.

The first half of his proposition is correct in principle, but difficult to implement in practice. A compelling American interest includes, as Paul recognizes, a strong response to the al-Qaeda attack of 9/11, to avenge past wrongs, and to neutralize or deter their repetition. Ironically, a dovish posture makes this objective elusive, because it is a decision to not stay the course over the long haul. For example, once the United States declares victory and implements a fixed plan to leave Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and its allies know that they need only lay low until the American presence is gone, at which time, they can turn up the heat again. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty.

The second half of Paul’s proposition is fraught with yet greater danger. The standard of a “compelling American interest” is just too narrow to deal with the full range of threats to world peace. Senator Paul goes to great pains to insist that he is not an “isolationist” in foreign affairs, but the word “American” in the phrase “compelling American interest” creates just that impression both at home, and equally importantly, abroad.

Think back to the onset of the Second World War, and ask whether the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, so critical to British survival, advanced compelling American interest given that German bombs were directed solely towards London and not towards New York City? Should the United States have entered into a nonaggression treaty with the Germans if the Germans had given us a credible promise that they would not attack Canada, Mexico, or the U.S.? What a disaster for the world that would have been! If we are not willing to use force in defense of our allies, we will soon have no allies to defend.

The situation becomes only more difficult in light of the humanitarian issues that are raised by the Syrian conflict, in which over a thousand people have been killed or maimed, and millions have been forcibly displaced from their homes. None of this is a direct threat to any American interests. Consequently, Bashar al-Assad now enjoys a free hand, as far as the United States is concerned, in dealing with his own dissidents.

At this point, repression will increase on the one side, followed by heinous acts of retaliation on the other. Interventions will of course take place by other nations—think Russia or Iran—who define their interests more broadly. Our erstwhile allies have less confidence in our national position. Yet no one knows exactly what the United States will do in response to their shrinking options.  

Bad Bargaining, Barack Obama Style

Whatever the errors of the Paul position, he at least makes one point sorely missing from the President’s playbook. For Obama, the root difficulty comes from a total lack of understanding of the bargaining environment that he is in.

In dealing with friends, the appropriate way to bargain is often to overlook the dangers of going first and putting one’s self at risk. In business, people get to choose the people with whom they want to bargain. By choosing well, it is possible to have some trading partners whom one can prudently trust. Taking the first small step is a way to establish credibility with a potential trading partner who is always worried about the Hobbesian assurance question: if I go first, will you reciprocate?

The risk of being caught can easily be offset by the ability to establish a long-term relationship where substantial long-term gains deter both sides from defecting to garner small short-term gains. Most businesses and partnerships work in just this fashion, and the cynic who trusts no one finds himself working in relative isolation.

Foreign affairs, however, denies nations the luxury of choosing trading partners. We have to deal with the Russians, Chinese, Iranians, and North Koreans because of the power they have to destabilize the world order. Nothing is in my view more dangerous in this setting than to indulge in the same assumptions with foreign enemies that you do with domestic, or indeed, foreign friends.

Making concessions on missile defense in order to work the now fabled “reset” with the Russians will have adverse outcomes. The supposed concession in return will never appear before the next demand is made. The strategies that allowed the President, as a fabled community organizer, to win support from the business world won’t work with the Russians or Iranians, who understand weakness and will exploit it.

Yet that is just what the President is determined to do. His entire effort to gain support for his ill-fated resolution to use limited force against Syrian supplies of chemical weapons was both too weak and too strong at the same time. It was too weak because it did not answer the question of what the United States should do if Assad continues to engage in mass murder by more traditional weapons. It was also too weak because it left the course of action unclear if the Syrians should seek to expand the conflict, say by some attack against Israel.

Yet, at the same time, it was too strong because it committed the United States to a position that it could not possibly win. Rand Paul has a point when he says that a coherent strategy needs a political objective for going in and an exit strategy for getting out. By limiting the means chosen—no boots on the ground—for the stated end, Obama is helping our enemies weather this blow. It is tragic that people who favor firmer, clearer action in the face of major human tragedy should be divided among themselves as to whether the second best choice is to do nothing or to do something that is weak and counterproductive.

The reason for this impasse lays in the casual way that the President announces a red line that he is both unwilling and unable to cross. It was a desperate sign of last minute improvisation to go to Congress after the weapons were used when firm planning was required earlier on. It is quite clear that the American system, which requires a declaration of war for the President to use force, places serious limitations on the ability to wage war. Like all such limitations, it is a mixed blessing that prevents reckless intervention on the one hand, but can lead to hopeless indecision on the other.

The President has put himself in an impossible position. By dithering, he has created a precipitous loss of American credibility. Right now, his Syrian policy has befuddled Congress; emboldened Russia, Syria, and Iran; weakened Israel; and thrown our European allies into disarray. Let us hope that the President can make things right. The Obama/Chamberlain comparisons over Syria and Iran are perhaps premature. But they soon won’t be unless the President stiffens his spine and exerts the leadership that is so desperately needed.