By now it’s clear that, though a gifted speaker generally, President Obama can be pretty inarticulate talking about foreign policy. That’s why it was a little surprising that, in his interview yesterday on Meet the Press, the President usefully clarified some of his own thinking on defeating the ISIS threat in the Middle East – though in the process, he also showed how worrisomely hidebound it remains.
What the interview transcript told us is that Mr. Obama’s “Iraq-ophobia” stems from concerns much more specific, and genuinely pragmatic, than a general opposition to preemptive war or a philosophical reluctance to use major, continuous doses of force in world affairs (as opposed to discrete applications like drone strikes). Nor is he mainly worried that “boots on the ground” as such are likelier to result in many more casualties than airstrikes – though obviously that’s a worry.
Instead, President Obama seems to think that a major, long-term ground campaign inevitably means pursuing a strategy that he considers completely unsustainable for the United States, and ultimately futile – sending tens and even hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to restage the bloody, costly conflict launched by George W. Bush.
As he emphasized yesterday morning, “[Y]ou…cannot, over the long term or even the medium term, deal with this problem by having the United States serially occupy various countries all around the Middle East. We don’t have the resources. It puts enormous strains on our military.” And repeating a point he’s made before: “And at some point, we leave. And then things blow up again.”
Conservative critics have hit Obama hard on the second point, arguing that American forces have had stabilizing effects on Europe and the Far East for decades. In my opinion, the U.S. military has remained in Germany, Japan, and Korea far too long, but today it’s more important to point out that the President has overlooked a third role for U.S. forces in Iraq – and one much more promising than Iraq-scale invasion or almost exclusive reliance on air power.
As per a post of mine last week, the United States should use heavy air and drone strikes in tandem with Special Forces and other small-scale ground units to disrupt ISIS’ main military units and then keep them on the run. This approach would work best of course with larger ground forces from regional countries’ militaries adding to the pressure, too (assuming they wouldn’t crumble like Iraq’s army and hand ISIS a treasure trove of advanced U.S. weaponry). But even if such regional forces weren’t available, there’s no reason to think that the disrupt-and-harass strategy wouldn’t be just as successful as it’s been in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda has been reduced to insignificance.
Here’s the rub, though – disrupt and harass may need to be carried out for years. It will require patience and persistence – not because the strategy fails to recognize how quickly an ISIS threat to the American homeland might develop, but because unconventional, non-state adversaries can have many lives, and reemerge in many different forms. And nowhere is this truer than in a region like the Middle East, which is likely to remain politically and socially dysfunctional for decades.
The President’s stated opposition to measures that don’t contribute to lasting victory over ISIS and other extremists (“And things blow up again.”) strongly suggests that its inconclusiveness would be his main objection to disrupt and harass. That of course doesn’t sound like a leader who’s truly patient. It sounds like one who’s making the perfect the enemy of the good.