When US President Obama admitted that he had no strategy yet on the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the neocons and the war freaks of American politics mercilessly lampooned him as a wimp.
One-time Republican presidential aspirant Ron Paul took a contrarian view and said, “Good!” Good that unlike his critics, Obama doesn’t believe in solving every problem by bombing it to smithereens and putting troops on the ground. Good that Obama doesn’t believe in printing dollars to pay for another war of choice.
Ron Paul spoke too soon. Last week Obama announced a strategy apparently designed to make him look like a bullet-chewing macho. He has a strategy after all. And it entails bombing the problem but not putting boots on the ground. OK, maybe a few—to advise allies on how to fight terrorists who wield US-made arms.
Many of Obama’s critics are underwhelmed. But most members of the US House of Representatives are impressed enough to legislate support for Obama’s strategy. They will fund the training of Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State.
Apart from carrying out a systematic campaign of airstrikes and supporting the forces fighting the IS, Obama’s strategy also calls for intensive use of American counterterrorism capabilities, and the dispatch of humanitarian aid to displaced civilians. So it’s a strategy with four planks.
The most striking part of it is, of course, the air strikes. That’s also an unwieldy part. It’s OK to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq, because then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki requested it. But there’s a bit of a legal nicety involved if you do that in Syria.
Nobody has recognized a government in Syria that is not Bashir al-Assad’s. So if the US bombarded the IS on Syrian soil, it would be violating international law if Assad did not request it. That is if sovereignty still counts for something.
In fact Assad can take advantage of the legal awkwardness of the projected US air strikes in Syria by simply making such a request. Would the US desist from attacking the IS on Syrian soil because Assad requested it? No. But when the US strikes the IS in Syria anyway, it would look like compliance.
The Obama strategy follows a tradition. George Friedman of the Geopolitical Weekly has written: “US strategy ought to be to maintain the balance of power in a region using proxies and provide material support to those proxies but avoid direct military involvement (read, boots on the ground) until there is no other option. The most important thing is to provide support that obviates the need for intervention.”
That, I think, is essentially another way of stating the Obama strategy. It’s a Cold War strategy. One that will settle for a stalemate in case the enemy is too strong for the proxies to defeat. In this case the enemy is the IS and the proxies are the Syrian rebels, the Kurds, the Shi-as and the Sunni tribes that won’t accept the IS.
The main deficiency of this strategy is that it says nothing about addressing the root causes of terrorism. It’s silent on what drives young people—most of the IS fighters are under 30—into the arms of a murderous and merciless ideology. What are their grievances? And how may these be redressed?
What environments warped the hearts and minds of these young people? How may these environments be reshaped?
The Obama strategy is silent on these questions. Yet, it’s not a bad strategy. It may work to some extent, depending on how well the proxies fight.
But until the root causes of terrorism are addressed, the 80 countries that produced today’s IS fighters will keep on manufacturing terrorists.