President Barack Obama addresses the nation from the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, Sunday night, December 6, 2016. The president's speech followed Wednesday's shooting in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people and wounded 21.
This article will appear in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
We are at a dangerous moment in the interplay of foreign and domestic politics. Jihadist attacks are a boon to the right in Europe and America, and the right’s indiscriminate threats against Muslims at home and abroad are a boon to the jihadists. This is a familiar cycle, a spiral of violence and fear in which the extremes feed off each other. During the next year, there is no greater challenge than stopping that spiral.
In the United States, the challenge takes on particular urgency because of the 2016 election. Donald Trump and other Republican candidates play upon public anxieties, fanning hostility to Muslims and promising a more aggressive military response to terrorism. Ted Cruz says, “Barack Obama does not wish to defend this country,” whereas he would “carpet bomb” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Trump also promises to “bomb the hell” out of the enemy and wreak vengeance on the families of terrorists, while calling Obama and the other candidates “weak” and “stupid.” The campaign has already degraded public discourse; the election could produce a sharp swing toward a bellicose xenophobia.
While Republicans bluster, the president has calmly insisted that the strategy he is following is the smart and ultimately more effective way to defeat ISIS and al-Qaeda. That strategy involves negotiating a cease-fire and resolution of the civil war in Syria and building an international military coalition to defeat ISIS. Emphasizing his opposition to a large American ground war, Obama has nonetheless committed some forces to the fight against ISIS—limited special forces in Syria and a larger number of troops in Iraq. That line has been crossed.
But will this effort be sufficient to make demonstrable progress soon enough—in particular, before next November’s election? The longer ISIS enjoys the power and resources it now has, the more risk there is of additional attacks on Western cities, with increasingly dangerous political repercussions. ISIS’s offshoots and affiliates now operate in Libya and other countries. The hope among defenders of Obama’s approach is that as a quasi-state in its home territory, ISIS will collapse under pressure. This is a plausible scenario, and steadily applying the necessary pressure would be the right way to proceed if there were no urgency to the situation.
Unfortunately, despite some success in recapturing territory from ISIS, there is reason to be skeptical that the president’s current approach will result in unmistakable progress, let alone the defeat of ISIS, by November. If for that reason alone, Hillary Clinton and other Democrats running in 2016 will need to put some distance between their position and Obama’s without repudiating the president. They will also need to provide voters with an alternative language of power and protection that explains why the simplistic and reckless approach on the right endangers Americans’ true safety and security.
THERE IS PROBABLY no better illustration of the inadequacy of simplistic ideas about the world than the two wars currently unfolding in Syria. One war pits rebel forces against the Assad regime, while the other (which also extends into Iraq) pits allied forces against ISIS. In each war, the local combatants are backed by external powers, but the alliances in one conflict do not match those in the other. For example, Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides in the Syrian civil war but are at least nominally on the same side in the war against ISIS. Anyone who assumes that the world is divided between good guys and bad guys and that we can protect ourselves by “bombing the hell” out of the bad guys will have a hard time understanding these wars, much less providing effective American leadership.
In both the diplomatic and military efforts under way, there is no way to avoid working with bad guys. In the civil war, the rebel forces fighting Assad include many such evildoers—exponents of “radical Islam,” as Republicans like to say—whose cooperation is essential to a settlement. In the fight against ISIS, the United States is relying primarily on Kurdish troops organized under a front group for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known as the “PKK,” which the U.S. government designated a “terrorist organization” in 1997. Under the pretense that this is not so, American officials avoid mention of the PKK front, referring to the somewhat broader “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), though no one in the region is fooled. To make matters even more complicated, the PKK has ties to Russia and in some cities divides control with the Assad regime rather than making war against it.
Since air power alone is insufficient to defeat ISIS, there need to be troops on the ground to complement U.S. airstrikes, and the Kurds have been the main source. As of mid-December, the combination of Kurdish ground operations and U.S. airpower had driven ISIS back from areas in northeast Syria close to the Turkish border that are primarily Kurdish. But to continue south and seize Raqqa—ISIS’s administrative center—requires taking Sunni Arab territory. “The plan seems to be,” writes Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, “to use the SDF to gradually glue more Arab groups onto a Kurdish core force while also separately standing up a nucleus of Sunni Arab fighters who belong to eastern Syrian tribes. Realistically speaking, these groups won’t be strong enough to dispense with the Islamic State and establish sustainable local governance on their own, and … there is a limit to how far south you can go with the Kurds.”
In his speech from the Oval Office on December 6, Obama said, “The strategy that we are using now—airstrikes, special forces, and working with local forces who are fighting to regain control of their own country—that is how we’ll achieve a more sustainable victory.” That strategy could work if there were local forces to carry it out. But as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius and others have pointed out, we have thus far failed to win over the local Sunni Arab fighters that the strategy requires. Iraq’s Shia-dominated government has been a primary obstacle to getting that Sunni support.
In his December 6 speech, Obama also argued that the international efforts to settle the Syrian conflict could, if successful, allow countries allied with the United States as well as others, including Russia, “to focus on the common goal of destroying” ISIS. That, too, could work, but such a coalition will need to put troops into the field. Many of them may be “local” (at least in a regional sense), but the United States will almost certainly have to share directly in the ground operations.
Again, the question is how quickly things will move. The Syrian conflict has already gone on for an obscene length of time, creating a humanitarian disaster and a flood of refugees that has destabilized European politics. Much depends now on Vladimir Putin’s calculations of Russia’s interests. While Syria could become a quagmire and weaken Putin at home, Russian intervention has fortified the Assad regime, and advances on the battlefield could strengthen the regime’s hand in negotiations. Whether Putin and Assad favor a cease-fire sooner or later may depend on how they read their military prospects.
On the other side, the rebel groups backed variously by the Gulf States, the West, and Turkey have had deep and persistent differences and show little promise of bringing peace or justice to Syria. The best hope now may be a federal system that would divide Syria into “cantons” with substantial autonomy for groups like the Kurds. But any such resolution would make Turkey nervous because of the PKK, with which it has long been at war. The Kurds were barred, partly at Turkey’s insistence, from the recent conference in Riyadh of Syrian opposition groups that created a joint commission to choose a negotiating team for peace talks with the Assad regime. Those talks are scheduled to begin in January in New York, but the continuing divisions among the Syrian opposition, as well as the conflicting interests of their foreign patrons, create innumerable stumbling blocks in the path to a settlement.
In short, Obama’s strategy—at least so far—lacks either the necessary local ground forces or the means of securing an expeditious resolution of the Syrian civil war and refocused international efforts to defeat ISIS. The United States could ramp up the fight against ISIS, as Clinton has suggested, by arming the Sunnis. We could also accept offers of ground troops from Arab countries and increase the size of the very limited force of our own that Obama has so far committed. Those forces could tip the balance in pending battles with ISIS. In the Syrian civil war, the United States and its allies may need to accelerate a deal with Russia that reflects both the battlefield realities and the limits (and limitations) of the opposition to Assad.
The local and international efforts may come together in time, but the political clock is ticking, and without clear evidence of progress by next November, the Democrats are far more vulnerable to the Republicans. To put the political point in stark terms: Going into 2012, Obama had Osama. Going into 2016, the Democrats need the fall of Raqqa and Mosul.
FACED WITH THE UNCERTAIN prospects of current policy, Clinton and the Democrats should push Obama to do more and to do it faster, while continuing to develop the language of power and protection that the president employs as an alternative to the right-wing conception of national strength. In the right-wing vision of a fortress America, the United States is safer when it summons its own overwhelming power, closes itself off to refugees and immigrants, and dispenses with legal niceties such as respect for human rights.
The alternative language of power emphasizes strength through diplomacy and alliances, through inclusiveness at home, and through the embodiment of the values of freedom and equality in national policy. These are elements of the liberal theory of power—the idea that liberal values and institutions deserve popular support not only because they are just, but also because they are durable bases of security and strength.
The response to Islamist terrorism brings out the differences between the right-wing and liberal worldviews. As many have pointed out, ISIS wants to destroy the “gray zones” in the West where Muslims live peaceably with others. When politicians on the right call for anti-Muslim measures, they are doing exactly what ISIS is hoping for. When they frame terrorism as a result of the “clash of civilizations” (as Marco Rubio did after the Paris attacks in November), they are equating Islam with ISIS. The liberal response—reassuring Muslims, distinguishing sharply between the small number of terrorists and the vast Muslim majority, and calling upon that majority to mobilize against hatred and intolerance—is also the stronger and smarter course in the struggle against terrorism.
To be sure, neither Obama nor any other president can prevent every terrorist act. But clear and convincing progress against ISIS abroad will give the public more confidence that the government is doing all it possibly can to stop terrorism. Contrary to the voices urging patience and containment, Obama ought to be pressing the fight to defeat ISIS’s “caliphate” with a timetable measured in months rather than years. Americans need to see progress in 2016. “Every time things gets worse, I do better,” Trump said on December 5 in the wake of the attack in San Bernardino. On that particular point, he may well be right.