By COLIN GAMM —
President Barack Obama has never personified what we perceive to be the archetypal American leader – gutsy, decisive active – and he has drawn intense criticism from all sides for his apparent lack of strategy to counter the rise of ISIS. Yet we should be immensely grateful that he leads during such a pivotal moment in American foreign policy. His calculated manner and resistance to pressure have kept us from repeating the disastrous mistakes of the recent past and reflect a commitment to an even broader and more important strategy: the rebalance to Asia.
The rise of ISIS is one of the most frustrating crises in recent history. Iraq and especially Syria are both the humanitarian tragedy of our times and the most fertile breeding ground for extremism, and as Americans it is a natural instinct to demand action. The terrorist attacks in France last week understandably prompted many to cry for some sort of response. Unfortunately, no one has been able to offer a truly developed and level-headed plan of action.
Politicians from all sides have criticized Obama for presiding over a foreign policy debacle that has only grown worse, and the rise of ISIS will go down as the greatest blemish on his legacy. But in politics these days, we reward those who throw stones and are content to ignore the complexities of what can actually be done.
The proposals put forth by others would be comical if they were not also so frighteningly shortsighted. Just 12 years after his brother first committed America to a region from which it now cannot tear itself away, Jeb Bush – seemingly the most sensible Republican candidate – has proposed a major reintroduction of American forces. Like his brother before him, he has not considered what would come after an invasion, and with this failure he has revealed an incapacity for learning even the most obvious lessons of the Iraq War.
ISIS wants us to intervene. Its desire to goad us into another quagmire was first made clear with its campaign of gruesome beheadings, and its recent expansion into outsourcing terrorism is its latest move to provoke an emotional response. When the U.S. is deeply shaken and lashes out against it, ISIS wins by gaining notoriety, recruits and a perverse validation of its importance. And the U.S. loses when fear drives it to compromise its values through torture, xenophobia, and the surrender of civil liberties.
As difficult as it may be for us to bear, the problem of ISIS may be truly intractable for now. Military action cannot be successful in the absence of a legitimate and Sunni occupying force. The Kurds, our only reliable partners in the region, have reached the limits of their territory. The Iraqi military has made modest progress since its earlier collapse, but it is still dominated by Shiite militias, and a second Sunni Awakening is nowhere to be seen. In Syria, the Assad government has lost all legitimacy and moderate rebels have been squeezed out by extremists.
The U.S. can and should continue to push for further Sunni inclusion in Iraq, for only the Sunnis are capable of facilitating lasting stability. It can also continue to search for diplomatic progress, though as noted before, no external power can bring peace to the region by force. The lessons we learned from Iraq cannot be forgotten so quickly.
There may be a silver lining to the limitations of American intervention, however: it encourages us to step back from the region. Obama understands the bigger strategic picture. From the beginning of his presidency, he wanted to pull the U.S. away from the consuming conflicts in the Middle East and toward Asia, where we could focus our attention on the area in which our foreign policy interests truly lie. The Arab Spring and its continuing aftermath have frustrated this pivot. As they are wont to do, politicians and pundits have focused on reactionary sound bites, but keeping some distance between America and Syria could finally enable the proper alignment of American resources abroad.
With his restraint and skeptical policy on ISIS, Obama has ensured that he will not handcuff his successor to the Middle East in the manner which befell him. We can only hope that the next president will share his sober pragmatism and strategic vision.
(Written by Colin Gamm, edited by Terril Y. Jones; Nov. 26, 2015)