Foreign Affairs: Barack Obama - reluctant warrior

Thirteen years after September 11, America has yet to concede that its war is not on terror – but on the ideology that fuels it.

US President Barack Obama.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
America’s gallery of presidential gaffes, from Gerald Ford’s revelation in 1976 that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” to Jimmy Carter’s in 1980 that he was consulting his 13-year-old daughter on major world problems, was joined last month by Barack Obama’s “We don’t have a strategy yet.”
As if driven by The New York Daily News’s screaming headline the morning after journalist Steven Sotloff’s beheading, “Do you have a strategy now, Mr. President?” – Obama stepped up Wednesday to unveil the game plan he has since conceived concerning the Islamic State.
Alas, Obama’s speech was long on tactics but short on strategy, for the prosaic reason that, just like George W. Bush before him, he failed to define the free world’s cause, and properly identify its enemy.
OBAMA’S PLAN should not be dismissed as either disingenuous or ineffective. The White House is evidently eager to defeat the menace posed by Islamist fanaticism’s latest torchbearers.
Similarly, the decision to bombard the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria will constitute a major strategic problem for the terror movement, due to the shape of the terrain it inhabits. All of the land the Islamic State roams is flatland, and the mountains that ring it are populated by an assortment of its many enemies – from the Iranians in the east to the Syrian army and Hezbollah in the west, to Jordan in the south and the Kurds in the north.
This geography, to be sure, was the rationale behind the Islamic State’s confrontations throughout the summer with the Kurds. Though the group had some momentary victories, the bottom line of those clashes was that the Kurds remained firmly and exclusively atop the summits of northern Iraq, and the Islamic State remained trapped in the lowlands – where it is topographically inferior and visually exposed.
Tactically, then, this is an entirely different situation from what American troops faced in Afghanistan, whose celestial mountaintops, steep cliffs and numerous caves are ideal for guerrillas. The Islamic State, by contrast, is indeed vulnerable to the aerial attacks Obama has in store for it, much the way Hamas has just proven in its own flat terrain during the recent fighting with the IDF.
Even so, telling an enemy in advance that it will be confronted only from the air is wrong, both tactically and psychologically. Tactically, victory is never reached without physically reaching the enemy – and the enemy is not in the air; it is on the ground.
And psychologically, telling an enemy it will not be confronted on the ground bolsters its self-esteem, as a formidable force that even the mighty US is reluctant to confront.
Obama’s vision does not altogether ignore the need to be on the ground. In declaring his intention to finance the training of “moderate Syrian forces,” he has made a quixotic effort to blur the view of a major diplomatic failure.
Every diplomat in the region sees straight through this statement, and understands that even now, with war having so obviously caught up with him, Barack Obama remains a reluctant warrior.
THE SYRIAN moderates Obama would like to recruit are a military nonstarter, for the simple reason that they exist mainly in his head.
At a loss to matter even in Syria, whose civil war pits mainly Alawite fascists and their Shi’ite allies against an array of Sunni Islamists, the “moderate Syrians” Obama is out to deploy will be no more effective than Israel’s cultivation last century of the South Lebanon Army. If anything, this regional anecdote’s very mention is meant to conceal the American failure to assemble, or even just recruit, the ones who should really fight this war: Iraq’s neighbors.
Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it will finance and train “moderate Syrians” means the Saudis are for now refusing to fight this war by themselves, unlike what they did back when George H.W. Bush freed Kuwait in 1991. The same is true of Jordan, which this week said it was willing to help, but refusing to join, an American-led coalition. The same also goes for Turkey, whose entire attitude toward the Islamic State remains suspiciously mild.
The Arab League’s foreign ministers’ announcement in Cairo Monday, which called for “immediate measures” to confront the Islamic State “on the political, defense, security and legal levels” sounded brave, but reflected a failure to act. As of now, while everyone wants to see it eradicated, all seem to be waiting for someone else to lead the charge.
This goes for Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose attacks on the Islamic State have thus far been primarily from the air; this also goes for his Iranian patrons, who prefer to see an American- backed, Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi army lead the fight on the Islamic State; and this certainly goes for Turkey, whose first priority in this arena remains the removal of Assad, and not of his Sunni nemesis.
The war on the Islamic State, in short, is being joined reluctantly and haphazardly, and talk of an American-led coalition is largely empty. Yes, the war on the movement is about to be engaged, and it will ultimately be won – both because of that organization’s vulnerabilities and its audacity, now underscored by the American public’s eagerness to see it crushed.
Still, the dynamics surrounding this burgeoning confrontation reveal a failure of leadership, which in turn highlights a failure to properly define both the enemy and its targets.
Judging by Obama’s speech, the enemy that Iraq unveiled is one organization – the Islamic State – whose defeat will take what “eradicating a cancer” takes, because this enemy is yet another set of “terrorists who threaten our country.”
This is a variation of the 13-year-old “war on terror” theme coined by George W. Bush.
Both are misguided.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t tell the American people that their war was on the “Confederate soldiers,” because it was clear that the gray-uniformed troops were but the enemy’s tool. Rather, the enemy was defined by its ideas, which in their case defied America’s quest for unity and freedom.
It follows, that to be effective in the fight with the Islamic State Obama must call a spade a spade, and say the war is against Islamist fanaticism, and enlist to this cause all those that have been its targets worldwide since the Khomeini Revolution of 1979.
The list of Islamism’s targets reads like an atlas.
From Nairobi, Madrid and Buenos Aires to Volgograd, Mumbai and Bali, this scourge has been killing thousands annually around the globe. In a 25-year retrospect, it is clearly the chief threat to the post-Cold War era’s peace.
Fighting this cause must therefore deploy not just fighter jets, artillery and special units. It will have to meet the fundamentalists where they strike their most effective victories – in the kindergarten, the classroom, the shrine, the cinema, the Internet, the newspaper, the billboard and any other place where people are made to believe that those who don’t share their beliefs are morally inferior and fair game.
As America commemorates the 9/11 attacks, its leaders still remain reluctant to call the enemy by its name, and to assemble all of its targets and victims in order to confront a global enemy with a global war.
This is one cause on which Russia, China, Europe and America can truly collaborate, along with Egypt, India and Indonesia. Creating such an alliance would require a kind of ideological sobriety and political pragmatism that Obama has yet to display: a sobriety that would make him publicly part with the naïveté he displayed in his Cairo speech in June ’09; and the pragmatism he lacked when he snubbed Egypt’s anti-Islamist leaders, pushing them into Russia’s arms.
Egypt is the glaringly missing piece in America’s failed effort to cobble a Middle Eastern coalition against the Islamic State. Don’t be surprised if the coalition this war begs is eventually assembled after all – only not on the Potomac, but on the Nile.