It’s lucky for President Obama that ongoing American fears about ebola and most recently yesterday’s shootings in Canada have distracted so much public and media attention from the fight against ISIS terrorists in the Middle East.
About a month and a half after the president unveiled his strategy to defeat the Islamic army, U.S. air strikes and military aid have for the moment blunted its advance on the town of Kobani near the border of Syria and Turkey, and saved thousands of Yazidi refugees from ISIS massacre or enslavement. But the jihadis continue scoring victories in Iraq, and Mr. Obama has acknowledged that meaningful victory “won’t be quick.“
Even more disturbing, however, have been the obstacles Washington has faced in building a viable international coalition to wage the war against ISIS and to prevent the United States from having to reintroduce significant combat forces into the region – a goal that often seems to be the president’s bottom line.
Mr. Obama has spoken repeatedly of how his success in constructing the coalition, and especially bringing regional governments on board, is showing that “the people and governments in the Middle East are rejecting ISIL and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve.” But today, a senior Treasury Department official made clear just how exaggerated that encouraging claim remains.
In a speech in Washington, D.C., David Cohen, the Treasury official in charge of staunching the impressive revenue streams that have helped make ISIS so formidable, publicly accused “a variety of middlemen, including some from Turkey,” along with “Kurds in Iraq,” of selling and reselling ISIS-extracted and/or refined oil, and helping the organization earn more than $1 million per day from such energy sales.
Turkey, of course, is a NATO ally, and Kurds have been among ISIS’ main targets and victims, as well as U.S. aid recipients. Both Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish officials angrily denied the charges, but as Cohen broadly hinted, active government complicity hasn’t been necessary. ISIS’ Turkish and Kurdish business partners are part of “a long-standing and deeply rooted black market connecting traders in and around the area.” In other words, these activities have long been – and continue to be – winked at by the regimes in question.
With allies like these, it’s difficult at best to see how the United States can defeat ISIS mainly working through a coalition, and thus avoid large-scale American ground involvement. If Mr. Obama believes that denying the terrorists an Afghanistan-like haven from which attacks on the American homeland ultimately can be planned and launched, he’ll need to adopt the only remaining strategy capable of promoting vital U.S. interests at acceptable levels of cost and risk.
As I’ve advocated, the United States will need to authorize much more extensive air and special forces operations. But the aim would not be to prosecute the kind of open-ended campaign(s) that would be needed not only to defeat ISIS but to contain all the successor and wannabe groups certain to pop up in the Middle East and other failed regions. Rather, the aim would be to keep ISIS (and any others) off balance and unable to turn to nation-building just long enough to enable the U.S. government to enhance further its already considerable energy self-sufficiency and to seal its borders. Thus protected from the only two major threats that Middle East terrorists could pose, Americans would be able to regard this terminally dysfunctional region with the indifference it so richly deserves.