The messy campaign against the Islamic State
President Obama makes it so hard for those of us who are basically sympathetic to his foreign policy, writes syndicated columnist Nicholas Kristof.
President Obama’s rollout of a military campaign in Syria against the Islamic State gets messier by the day.
Obama’s initial framing of the campaign, as a limited effort in partnership with allies, to degrade the Islamic State, made sense, and it was encouraging that Obama dampened expectations and clearly understood how much could go wrong.
Then things went downhill. A “senior administration official,” in a briefing posted on the White House website, explained why Saudi Arabia would be a good partner in battling the Islamic State group: “Saudi Arabia has an extensive border with Syria.”
Actually, Saudi Arabia and Syria have no border at all. Always be skeptical when the White House goes to war with a country that it misplaces on a map.
Soon the administration, after initially avoiding the word “war,” dropped the euphemisms. It announced from multiple podiums that what we’re engaging in actually is a war after all.
The latest puzzle relates to ground troops. Obama seemed to rule them out last week, saying repeatedly that U.S. troops “will not have a combat mission.” Then Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that, if necessary, he might recommend “the use of U.S. military ground forces.”
Mr. President, you make it so hard for those of us who are basically sympathetic to your foreign policy. All this feels chaotic, poorly informed and uncoordinated — indeed, like a potential “slippery slope,” as a New York Times editorial warned.
Of course, it’s easy for us in the grandstands to criticize those walking the tightrope. I agree with Obama’s essential plan of authorizing airstrikes in Syria, if done cautiously and in conjunction with air forces of Sunni allies. But we can’t want to defeat the Islamic State more than the countries in its path, and right now we do.
U.S. involvement must be predicated on an inclusive Iraqi government so that Sunni tribes confront the Islamic State. It must entail cooperation from Turkey to disrupt Islamic State financing. It should entail a social media arm to counter Islamic State propaganda, cyberwarfare to spy on the Islamic State and disrupt it, and additional intelligence gathering to monitor foreign fighters who may return home. And Obama is right that Congress should finance and arm some Free Syrian Army commanders, as a counterweight to the Islamic State. Some fighters have joined the Islamic State simply because it offers better pay.
We should finance Syrian rebels in part because our past policy — staying aloof — failed and made the problem worse. Nearly 200,000 Syrians have died; Jordan and Lebanon have been destabilized; extremism has grown; and Iraq has now effectively been dismembered and atrocities committed against Yazidis, Christians and other minorities.
The trouble is that alarm and revulsion at Islamic State beheadings is creating a rush to intervene, so that some want us to leap from the sidelines right into the fray — even with ground troops. That would backfire by aggravating nationalists.
While I cautiously favor airstrikes, we need to be up front about risks:
First, airstrikes almost inevitably will mean accidental civilian casualties. The Islamic State would release videos of injured children to argue that America is at war with Islam. That may bolster extremist groups from Africa to Asia.
Second, more fighting in Syria could increase the refugee flow to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. It would be tragic if we inadvertently degraded not the Islamic State but Jordan.
Third, it seems entirely possible that the Islamic State filmed and released the beheading videos precisely with the intention of luring America into a war. Its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa would be difficult to bomb without causing civilian casualties, and the group may have figured that it could parlay U.S. attacks into new recruits, prestige and influence.
We also have enormous challenges at home and abroad that we may be able to do more about than Syria. A few months ago, we were on alert over a Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, kidnapping several hundred schoolgirls and threatening to sell them into slavery. Those girls are still missing, and Boko Haram has gained even more ground in northern Nigeria. Let’s not become so obsessed with the Islamic State that we become distracted from other threats.
I see military force as just one more tool. Sometimes it saves lives (Kosovo, Iraqi no-fly zones), and sometimes it costs lives (Iraq, Vietnam). Syria could be the right occasion to use it, but only if we act as if we’re facing a yellow traffic light, not a green one.
For now, we seem to be setting out on an uncertain mission with unclear objectives on an unknown timetable using ambiguous methods with unreliable allies. Some of that is inevitable, for foreign policy is usually conducted in a fog, but I’d be more reassured if the White House could at least locate its enemy on the map.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.