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What to do About ISIS? Constructing Strategy, Weighing Options

Friday, August 29th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

ISIS or the Islamic StateCaliphate” is the focus  of a great deal of discussion and demands for action from the United Statesand also inactionfrom many quarters.

What is to be done?

That is a famous question.  In matters of geopolitics and strategy, it is more fitting to begin with “Should something be done?”. We need to define the problem before rushing toward solutions. What is ISIS/ISIL/IS  and does it threaten the United States and American interests?:

An evolving offshoot of al Qaida, ISIS is a more radically takfiri, more ambitious and more impatient  jihadi/irhabi offspring than it’s parent. The so-called Islamic State holds sway over considerable Sunni Arab territory in both Syria and Iraq with a makeshift capital at Ar-Raqqah, Syria. Theologically, ISIS is the most extreme Islamist movement to arise since the GIA near the tail end of their 1990′s insurgency in Algeria, regarding the Shia and less radical Sunnis as apostates, deserving of death.  They have carried out genocidal massacres of Yazidis and Shia prisoners of war, tortured and mutilated prisoners and executed noncombatants and hostages like reporter James Foley. Ominously, ISIS may also be an apocalyptic movement, not merely a radical takfiri one, making it far less risk averse, even brazen, in its offensive operations and more intransigently fanatical on defense.

ISIS has been popularly described as an unholy mixture of “al Qaida, the Khmer Rouge and the Nazis”  and also as a terrorist army” by General David Petraeus. While it is true that their ranks probably contain the cream of the world’s Salafi terrorist-jihadi current, terrorism in the form of assassinations and suicide bombings has only been adjunctive to insurgent tactics and conventional combined arms operations. ISIS has shown impressive small unit discipline, the capacity to engage in maneuver warfare with heavy arms against the Kurds, Syrian Army, the Iraqi Army and rival Syrian rebel groups and even special operations skills. ISIS has moved aggressively on the physical, mental and moral levels of war to amass territory for their “caliphate” and consolidate their power and continues to advance, despite being rebuffed from Irbil by the Kurds and US airpower. ISIS is heavily armed with large quantities of advanced modern American and Russian weapons captured from the Iraqi and Syrian armies and is equally well funded, possessing in addition to significant revenue flows, the control of numerous dams and oilfields. Finally, in addition to their manifold war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide, ISIS has also made broad, if vague, threats to strike New York, Chicago and Americans generally.

ISIS in a sense is the dream of jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri come to life and gone from strength to strength. If they do not have al-Suri in their ranks, they have his playbook and do not seem to shrink from employing stratagems and speed to achieve surprise.

Having assessed their capabilities, I think it is reasonable to conclude that ISIS is a threat to American interests because they are destabilizing the region, threatening the security of American allies and are regularly causing a grave humanitarian crisis far beyond the normal exigencies of war. It is less clear that they are a direct threat to the security of United States and to the extent that ISIS terrorism is a threat, it is a  modest one,  though greater to Americans and US facilities overseas. The caveat is that the strength and capabilities of ISIS have already grown faster and qualitatively improved more than any other non-state actor in the last forty years and are on a trajectory of further growth. ISIS is unlikely to be better disposed toward American interests if it grows stronger. CJCS General Dempsey, correctly attempted to convey all of these nuances in his remarks to reporters without overstepping his role into advocating a policy to shape our strategy, which is the responsibility of his civilian superiors.

This brings us to the cardinal weakness in post-Cold War American statesmen – an unwillingness to do the intellectual heavy lifting that connects policy and strategy by making the choice to articulate a realistic vision of political ends that are the desired outcome of a decisive use of military force.  The result of this aversion (which is bipartisan – I am not picking on the Obama administration here) is that a strategy is not formulated, much less executed and the military then attempts to remediate the strategic gap with the sheer awesomeness of its operational art. That does not usually work too well, at least on land, because contemporary American civilian and military leaders also do not like to inflict the kind of horrific mass casualties on the enemy that, even in the absence of a real strategy might still cripple through sheer attrition  the enemy’s will or capacity to fight.  The American elite today, in contrast to the generation of FDR, Eisenhower and Truman, have no stomach for Dresden – but defeating Nazis sometimes requires not just a Dresden, but many of them and worse.

However, let’s assume the best, that the Obama administration will, having learned from Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, construct a strategy to use force to accomplish victory – gaining coherent, specific and realistic political objectives. The President, having refreshingly admitted that there is no strategy at present, has freed up his subordinates to create one rather than digging in and defending the current policy that lacks one. Since the administration and nearly everyone else on Earth agrees that ISIS , in addition to being moral monsters, is a threat to at least some degree. the questions then become:

  • How much of a threat is ISIS to American interests or security?
  • What do we want the political end state to be in the Mideast if/when the threat of ISIS is contained, diminished or destroyed?
  • What is it worth to us to accomplish this outcome in light of our other, competing, American interests, in the region and globally?

Once those important questions are answered, the military leadership will have the proper policy guidance to give the administration the best possible advice on how military force could secure their aims or be used in concert with other elements of national power civilian leaders might wish to employ, such as diplomacy, economic coercion or covert operations. Moving forward without answering these questions is an exercise in flailing about, hoping that using sufficient force opportunistically will cause good geopolitical things to happen.

I will not venture to say how or if administration officials will answer such questions, but there are some broad military options the Pentagon might offer to further a strategy to contend with ISIS. Some suggested possibilities and comments:

These options are not all mutually exclusive and in practice some would blend into others. No option is perfect, cost free or without trade-offs. Attempting to find the strategy with no risks and no hard choices is a policy to engage primarily in ineffectual military gesticulations insufficient to actually change the status quo in Iraq and Syria ( and the eternal default strategy of domestic political consultants and career bureaucrats playing at foreign policy).

DO NOTHING:

Doing nothing, or non-intervention is vastly underrated as a strategy because it is passive. However, most of the greatly feared, worst-case scenarios will fail to materialize as predicted because the actors about whom we harbor grave suspicions usually become bogged down by their own friction, miscalculations, internal politics and chance. This is why calling every foreign menace, great and small, the next “Hitler” has lost much of its charge. Run of the mill tyrants and corrupt dictators simply are not Adolf Hitler and their crappy, semi-developed, countries are not to be equated with turning the industrial heart of Europe into a war machine. Avoiding a needless war of choice is usually the smarter play from an economic and humanitarian standpoint.  The drawback to this option is that every once in a while, the menace really is another Hitler, a Bolshevik Revolution or a less than existential threat that nevertheless, is politically intolerable for numerous good reasons.  ISIS barbarism probably falls into the latter category and doing absolutely nothing becomes risky in the face of a fast-rising aggressor and probably politically untenable at home.

CONTAINMENT:

Containing a threat with a combination of coercion, non-military forms of pressure and  limited uses of armed force short of all-out warfare is designed to prevent further expansion until the adversary loses the will or capacity to remain a threat. This defensive posture was the successful American grand strategy of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and is frequently invoked as a less costly alternative for proposed interventions. Admittedly, the idea of keeping Islamist radicals bottled up in a “Sunnistan” composed of the Syrian desert and northern Iraqi towns until they starve or are overthrown and murdered by locals has a certain charm.

Unfortunately, this option is not likely to work because the underlying analogy is extremely poor.  Containment worked in part because Soviet insistence on maintaining the USSR as a totalitarian “closed system” made them exceptionally vulnerable to Containment’s pressure which allowed them no lasting way to resolve their internal economic and political contradictions. ISIS is not the Soviets and their Caliphate is not a closed system, or even yet, a durable state.  Their jihadi cadres can melt away across borders and new recruits can make their way in, as can contraband, money and information. Physically containing ISIS would do nothing toward discrediting their ideas; more likely, their continued existence in the face of powerful Western and Arab state opposition would validate them.  In any event, sealing off ISIS would require the unstinting, sustained, cooperation of  Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf states, Turkey, the Assad regime, the Kurds and a large deployment of American troops. This is probably not doable except on a very short term basis as a prelude to a “final offensive” like the one that crushed the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

PROXY WARFARE:

Enlisting foreign local allies, be they loyalist paramilitaries or state military regulars of various countries offers numerous advantages as well as drawbacks. It provides boots on the ground that we can’t afford, while irregulars like Kurdish Peshmerga and Shia militiamen would be highly motivated to fight. The Kurds are also (relatively speaking) well disciplined and trained compared to building units by throwing together ragtag tribesmen and down on their luck Iraqi townsmen looking for a paycheck. Adding overwhelming American airpower to the mix would greatly improve the fighting power of irregular light infantry, as was demonstrated recently when Kurdish and Iraqi forces repeled ISIS from Iraq’s largest dam. Proxy warfare offers a fairly decent chance to roll back ISIS but the downside is that proxies also have their own agendas and would range from “mostly but not entirely reliable” (Kurds) to “freebooting death squads” (Shia militias). As in Afghanistan, we would soon find our proxies were also in the pay of Iran and Saudi Arabia and attempting to play one patron off against the other. Recognizing Kurdish independence would most likely be part of the deal (not a bad thing in my view) which would require repudiating a decade of failed nation-building policy in Iraq ( also not a bad thing) and accepting partition.

LIMITED WARFARE: 

Limited warfare is often disdained because it can seldom produce a resounding victory but it is useful in playing to strengths (ex. relying on a robust air campaign) while  limiting exposure to risks and costs.  Overwhelming firepower can be applied selectively to prevent an adversary’s victory and impose punishing costs, eating up their men and material. Limited warfare works best in conjunction with simple and limited political goals and military objectives and poorly with grandiose visions ( like turning Afghanistan into a liberal democracy and haven of women’ rights). Limited warfare on land, particular grinding counterinsurgency wars that go on for years on end with no clear stopping point, are very difficult for democracies to sustain politically. The electorate grows weary and the troops come home, often short of a permanent political settlement. The likely preference of the administration, if it chose this option, would be an air campaign coupled with drones, CIA covert action and SOF, working in conjunction with local allies.

MAJOR WARFARE:

For existential threats, go heavy or go home. This is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine in pursuit of a decisive battle that does not merely defeat but crushes the enemy and compels him to submit to our will.  It would be extraordinarily expensive in blood, treasure and opportunity costs as the United states military is ill-prepared to re-deploy the bulk of the Army and Marine Corps to Iraq, supported by carrier groups in the Gulf. It is highly questionable that ISIS, whose fighters number somewhere between 10,000 – 20,000 would stand up and try to fight such an mammoth expedition head-on. They would retreat to Syria and dare us to invade that country also or go underground. It is also dubious that American leaders have the kind of iron-hearted will to fight what Gary Anderson accurately describes as “a combined arms campaign of extermination“. ISIS by contrast, demonstrates daily that it has no such scruples restraining them.

GRAND COALITION:

This differs from the previous option only in that it would bring all or most of the aforementioned armed enemies of ISIS together to corner and annihilate the menace once and for all. It makes eminent strategic sense but the ability to bring together so many incompatible parties and weld them into a coordinated military campaign requires political-diplomatic wizardry on the order of genius to pull off. It also requires a much greater sense of fear of ISIS than even their ghoulish brutality has generated so far to bring together Saudi and Shia, Turk and Kurd, Alawite and Sunni rebel, American and Iranian, as military allies.

The Obama administration faces a difficult dilemma in pondering the problem presented by ISIS. I don’t envy them but their task will grow easier and a resultant strategy more likely successful if they are willing to make ruthless choices in pursuit of bottom-line, clearly-defined American interests.

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DoubleQuotes in the Wild: Iraq Redux?

Friday, August 8th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- noted in passing, hat tip to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, who retweeted this from Leo Shane III ]
.

**

Of course, a weak (IMO) argument might be made that “fighting another war in Iraq” involves putting troops on the ground again, not “airstrikes to stop genocide” alone — but at a simple, verbal level I don’t buy it.

So there’s a disconnect, sure — but it’s the kind of disconnect that calls attention to itself — pretty much a statement and its negation. And from a DoubleQuotes / HipBone / Sembl point of view, that’s an intense form of connection, closer for instance than many types of kinship, or cause and effect:

Opposites are closely coupled.

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Bomb Syria?

Thursday, August 29th, 2013


[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. "zen"]

There is much ado about a prospective Western (i.e. American) aerial campaign to bomb the Iranian allied Alawite-Baathist dictatorship Syria over use of chemical weapons against primarily al Qaida allied Sunni Islamist extremist rebels.

To what end or how that end will be brought about by a surgical use of American air power, aided by token French and British contributions, well, no one is quite sure.

The driving insider force behind this astrategic call to arms are Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Anne-Marie Slaughter, the three Furies of R2P.  Slaughter writes on military intervention in Syria with her usual combination of moral certainty and operational magical thinking here. Rice angrily pontificates here while an unusually muted UN Ambassador Samantha Power just tweeted about it while on vacation from the emergency UN Security Council meeting on, uh, Syria.

The strategic argument about Syria is not about the normative qualities of the Assad regime, which is anti-American, brutal, terrorist supporting and fascistic. Or that the regime is committing atrocities. It is. It is about what political objective, if any, the use of military force against Syria can accomplish at what cost and with what probable outcomes. At a grand strategic level, there are also questions about how military intervention in Syria will impact great power relations and the shaping of international law.

I suspect many R2P advocates like Slaughter, Rice and Power are attracted to the idea of bombing Syria partly to garner a precedent to support doing similar things in the future, whether or not it has any positive effect on the Syrian civil war. That however, if true, is an extremely poor reason for military intervention anywhere. If bombing had some hope of changing the behavior of the Syrian regime or replacing it with something better, I would warm to the prospect but where is the evidence that is a likely outcome? Consider:

The Syrian rebels include armed groups as violent, lawless and squalid as the Assad regime. You know, the Beheading community of the third jihad international, with fringe support from the occasional cannibal commandos. If these Islamist lunatics come to power in Damascus they will cheerfully engage in ghastly pogroms of mass murder and torture that will make Assad’s goons look like the British Raj at tea time.

The Assad regime and the Alawite minority from whence it originates have their backs to the wall in a conflict that determines if they continue to rule Syria or are exterminated. Having no margin for maneuver or concession, America bombing them is irrelevant to whether in their calculus they can stop fighting their local enemies. The whole point of combining the threat of force with diplomacy – allegedly the reason given for bombing Syria – is to be able to make Assad an offer that he can’t refuse and not a threat that the Alawites can’t accept. Then, while blustering loudly and ominously we undercut our own bellicose posturing and announce that regime change was off the table. WTF?  Really?

The President should fire this unholy crew of incompetents and intellectual poseurs and hire some real foreign policy advisers with at least an undergraduate level grasp of how diplomacy, strategy and war have worked for the past 2000 years.

Failing that, a few poker players who can bluff without showing the entire table their cards.

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Irony

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

From the State Department Human Rights Report on Russia under the Putin administration:

….The law forbids officials from entering a private residence except in cases prescribed by federal law or on the basis of a judicial decision. The law also prohibits government monitoring of correspondence, telephone conversations, and other means of communication without a warrant and prohibits the collection, storage, utilization, and dissemination of information about a person’s private life without his or her consent. While these provisions were generally followed, there were allegations that government officials and others engaged in electronic surveillance without judicial permission and entered residences and other premises without warrants.

News from yesterday about the United States government under the Obama Administration:

….The IRS sent Crossroads’ application to ProPublica in response to a public-records request. The document sent to ProPublica didn’t include an official IRS recognition letter, which is typically attached to applications of nonprofits that have been recognized. The IRS is only required to give out applications of groups recognized as tax-exempt.

“In an email Thursday, an IRS spokeswoman said the agency had no record of an approved application for Crossroads GPS, meaning that the group’s application was still in limbo.

and:

Internal Revenue Service officials in Washington and at least two other offices were involved with investigating conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status, making clear that the effort reached well beyond the branch in Cincinnati that was initially blamed, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post.

IRS officials at the agency’s Washington headquarters sent queries to conservative groups asking about their donors and other aspects of their operations, while officials in the El Monte and Laguna Niguel offices in California sent similar questionnaires to tea-party-affiliated groups, the documents show.

and:

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative’s top executive called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed outgoing calls for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, for general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and for the main number for the AP in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP. It was not clear if the records also included incoming calls or the duration of the calls.

In all, the government seized the records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown, but more than 100 journalists work in the offices where phone records were targeted, on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

In a letter of protest sent to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary Pruitt said the government sought and obtained information far beyond anything that could be justified by any specific investigation. He demanded the return of the phone records and destruction of all copies.

“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters. These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the newsgathering activities undertaken by the AP during a two-month period, provide a road map to AP’s newsgathering operations and disclose information about AP’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know,” Pruitt said.

I look forward to the report by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Human Rights in the United States.

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A Brief Note on the Benghazi Hearings

Thursday, May 9th, 2013

There is legitimate room for debate if there could have been an effective military reaction to the attack in Libya by al Qaida terrorists that killed Ambassador Stevens and other US personnel.  One was apparently never seriously entertained  by senior White House, State Department and Pentagon officials. I think there ought to have been an effort to move heaven and earth and far, far greater willingness to inflict massive casualties on an attacking Libyan mob than existed, but in fairness to the Obama administration, a seat-of-the-pants, unsupported, undermanned response could also have been a replay of Blackhawk Down or Desert One. It’s a tough judgment call for any President.

That’s not why the Obama administration is in trouble today.

Poorly supported security and inept decision making by the State Department in Libya was likewise, disappointing but politically survivable and sadly, unsurprising.. We have seen similar bungling before and after 9/11 by most of our major national security departments and agencies at one time or another. It is a bipartisan phenomenon, albeit one we take far too lightly.

No, as damning testimony today made clear, the Obama administration is in trouble because their poor but not remarkably so handling of Benghazi was shielded by a ridiculous lie told entirely for partisan gain and to protect the overrated reputations and overweening egos of various administration bigwigs, most notably the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

Is there anyone today – anyone at all – who still believes that Benghazi occurred because of an obscure crackpot’s video on youtube?

Had the administration manfully said “This attack is a terrible tragedy and we dropped the ball but you can believe we won’t make a similar mistake tracking down the people who did this and make them pay” most Americans would have accepted that. No, not rabid partisan Republicans, but most Americans would have wanted to back the President, any President, in the wake of such terrorism which is directed, in the last analysis, at all of us.

They did not – and much of the rest of their reaction indicates that the real concern at State and the White House was and still is with the temerity of their political opponents in daring to demand they account for their actions as if we lived in a Republic or something.

In American politics, it is the self-inflicted wounds that fester and turn gangrenous

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