It’s been more than two weeks since the terrible attacks in Paris. And what has been the response? French President Francois Hollande has tried to bring the U.S. and Russia into a wider anti-ISIS coalition. That effort, predictably, has gone nowhere because of the stark differences between the U.S. (which sees Assad as part of the problem in Syria) and Russia (which sees Assad as the solution). The fracas over Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian fighter has further splintered any attempt to create international solidarity against the Islamic State.
So where does that leave us? With a slightly intensified air campaign against ISIS that has now been joined by French aircraft and possibly soon by the British, too, assuming that Prime Minister Cameron wins parliamentary approval, as appears likely. In retaliation for the bombing of a Russian civilian airliner, the Russians have already dropped some bombs and missiles on Raqqa, the ISIS capital, although they are saving most of their firepower for more moderate Syrian rebels. And the U.S. has slightly increased the tempo of its air strikes — it is now willing to target ISIS oil tankers (after warning the drivers to leave their trucks) but still not ISIS oil wells, apparently for fear of causing environmental damage!
Unfortunately, there is no reason to think that air strikes alone will defeat ISIS any more than they have ever defeated any other determined foe in the past century.
Yet President Obama, having considered his options, has apparently decided to continue with the present strategy of relying on air strikes and limited advisory assistance to Iraqi and Syrian forces. Instead of confronting the growing ISIS threat, he insists on denigrating it. The onetime “JV team,” which supposedly wasn’t ready for the big leagues of terrorism, is now labeled by the president as “a bunch of killers with good social media,” which is about as accurate a description as calling Barack Obama “a community organizer with a nice airplane.”
Even some of the administration’s former officials are getting sufficiently fed up with the president’s inaction that they are going public with their concerns.
Michael Vickers, a former CIA officer who served both Bush and Obama as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, wrote a withering article entitled, “Change Your Strategy, Mr. President.” “We conducted as many airstrikes in two months in Afghanistan in 2001 as we have in 16 months in Iraq and Syria,” he wrote. “We should increase our strike tempo and weight of attacks significantly to bring both mass and precision to bear on ISIL’s stronghold.”
Vickers also called for increased assistance to the Syrian opposition: “As we did in Afghanistan, we must support the moderate opposition with overwhelming air power, substantially increase the flow of arms to the moderate opposition, and place special operations and intelligence advisers with them.”
Obama’s former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, sounded a similar note in a TV interview. He said: “I think the mission that [Obama] said is the right mission, which is to disrupt, dismantle and destroy ISIS, that’s the right mission. But I think that the resources applied to that mission, frankly, have not been sufficient to confront that. And for that reason, I think we have got to be much more aggressive and much more unified in the effort to take on ISIS.”
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein echoed such concerns, saying, “I don’t think the approach is sufficient to the job. I think there are general principles, and the general principles in terms of the administration strategy, too, but I’m concerned that we don’t have the time, and we don’t have years. We need to be aggressive now because ISIL is a quasi-state.”
Hillary Clinton is not criticizing Obama as explicitly — obviously she sees little political advantage in doing so — but she laid out her own plan for combatting ISIS that is a de facto rebuke of Obama for not doing more. Clinton called for steps such as imposing no-fly zones in Syria and doing more to arm Sunni tribes in Iraq that Obama has refused to implement.
The New York Times’ well-connected correspondent, David Sanger, reported “that the arguments made last week by [John] Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton — calling for a no-fly zone in Syria and a more muscular military response to bolster the diplomacy now underway — generally reflected arguments Mr. Kerry made, and lost, in the Situation Room.”
In short, it is not just Republicans who are berating Obama for failing to do more — so are many prominent officials in and out of the government. Yet Obama, possessed of remarkable self-confidence even in the face of overwhelming evidence that his policies are failing, remains serenely unswayed. He obviously believes he and he alone knows the one true way, and he is not to be persuaded otherwise no matter how much the facts may contradict him.
In this respect, he is a bit reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson from 1965 to 1968 and George W. Bush from 2003 to 2006. Both presidents were presiding over a losing war effort and yet remained convinced that they knew better than the critics that there really was light somewhere at the end of the tunnel. Alas, those analogies show how it is nearly impossible for outsiders to change a president’s national security policies even if those policies have lost the confidence of the country and the Congress. Congress could not prevent either Johnson or Bush from escalating their wars (successfully in Bush’s case), and it cannot force Obama to escalate.
There might be a few things that congressional critics can do to try to force the president’s hand. It would make sense, for example, for a bipartisan coalition to unite to pass a robust Authorization for the Use of Military Force against ISIS that would be bereft of the needless limitations included in Obama’s version.
But at the end of the day, the president calls the shots on foreign policy, and this president shows no sign of rethinking his failed approach. What this shows, once again, is the importance of presidential elections. It really matters who we elect to the world’s most powerful position — and that is why it is all the more imperative that voters choose wisely in the contest now under way.
Candidates such as Ben Carson and Donald Trump have simply not passed the commander-in-chief test — in Trump’s case he has not even passed the most basic test of human decency and character — and, therefore, should not be given serious consideration. We need a president with the vision and knowledge to defeat the Islamic State, something that President Obama is plainly not planning to accomplish.