The ISIS Conundrum

I just finished watching a 17 minute discussion from the Wednesday night PBS NewsHour (10 June) moderated by anchor Judy Woodruff  with Leon Panetta, Michele Flournoy, Tony Zinni, and Andrew Bacevich discussing US policy/strategy in Iraq in light of President Obama’s decision to send 450 combat advisors there.   This link (http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/can-obamas-plan-defeat-destroy-islamic-state/ ) provides both the video of the discussion and a transcript.

I found this roundtable discussion both informative and distressing.  Informative because it framed the issues and exposed the various policy options. Distressing because all but Bacevich see ISIS threating US national interests, and yet Panetta and Flournoy believe we need Sunni Iraqis to defend those interests for us!  The elephant in the room mentioned but not really addressed is how to defeat (destroy?) ISIS without a long term US ground force commitment to the region.  Neat trick if it can be done.

With “due respect” to Ms. Flournoy, absent a large ground force commitment to Iraq I do not see Iran’s influence (military, religious, cultural, economic, and diplomatic) in the region waning.  Ergo, a reasonable strategy is for the US is to get out of the way and let Iran deal with ISIS while the US prepares to deal with Iran as an adversarial nation state regional power.  Does this mean the end of a sovereign Iraq?  Probably, but isn’t Iraqi sovereignty mostly de jure vice de facto?

It is my sense that what the American people want to hear is “no long term military commitment of ground forces to Iraq,” so if there is a threat to their safety from ISIS then the national security leadership needs to forcefully make that case … and expect it to be accepted or rejected in the 2016 election.  Alternatively, if the threat is now clear and present the President could request from Congress a declaration of war against ISIS or the Congress could offer such a declaration to the Commander in Chief.

Regarding the threat ISIS is presenting, I found Alex Ward’s recent article How Much Does ISIS Really Threaten America in THE NATIONAL INTEREST (http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-much-does-isis-really-threaten-america-12993?page=show ) well-reasoned.

Agreeing with Ward, I would observe that ISIS is fully engaged in creating vice operating from a safe haven in Eastern Syria and Northwestern Iraq as it fights Iraq, Iran, and elements in Syria to create the Islamic State.  As threatening as ISIS inspired “lone wolfs” are it is difficult for me to see any of  them as being  more dangerous to the safety of American citizens in the homeland than James Holmes (Aurora Movie Theater mass murder), Adam Lanza (Newtown School Shooting), Jared Lee Loughner (Congress Woman Gifford shooting),  etc. all of whom were not ISIS motivated.

As Leon Panetta observed in the NewsHour roundtable, the destabilization ISIS is causing in the Middle East represents a  threat to US interests, but a case can be made that ISIS is actually an artifact of the instability that already existed in region from the Syrian Civil War and an ethically Balkanized Iraq.  More importantly though, how does ISIS enhancing the regional instability threaten the strategic safety of the US or even Israel?  They could achieve nation state status, but the Islamic State would be a poor country in rough neighborhood.  How about as a state sponsor of terrorism?  I don’t see the Islamic State as being in the same league as North Korea, Iran, Somalia, or even fracturing Yemen.  Without Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), terrorism is the tactic of choice of the militarily weak.

As effective as ISIS recruiting and radicalization appears to be, they have not shown the ability for their recruits to plan, let alone conduct, coordinated attacks.  Actually it is this inability to mount synchronized attacks that makes ISIS “lone wolves” difficult for the Intelligence and Law Enforcement Agencies to identify and disrupt them.

Alex Ward makes several recommendations for dealing more effectively with the ISIS threat as it exists (stop hyping it, focus on tracking returning “foreign fighters,” stop looking at motivation and pay attention to how ISIS attacks), to which I would add work on intelligence driven “honey pots” to identify ISIS radicals amongst us and develop analytics that extract “lone wolf” signatures out of their low signal to noise environments.  More strategically the US needs a narrative that dilutes if not counters the appeal of the ISIS narrative for disconnected people to fight and die for ISIS.

I find it disconcerting that 14 years after 9/11 and all the blood and treasure expended in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US still has not developed a rational for countering radical jihadism.  Beyond that over two administrations and several Congresses we have not yet agreed on what national interest are at stake in Iraq since it was found not to have WMD and Saddam was removed.  Nor have we developed a consensus around a national strategy for dealing with the rise of Iran.  In retrospect, preventing the North from overrunning the South and containing the spread of Communism in Southeast Asia was actually a more coherent strategy for American war policy in Vietnam than anything we have seen in the last ten years in the Middle East!

That’s what I think; what do you think?

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