Obama Declared War on ISIS — Here’s What You Need to Know

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President Barack Obama delivers an address to the nation on the US counterterrorism strategy to combat ISIL, in the Cross Hall of the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama delivers an address to the nation on the US counterterrorism strategy to combat ISIL, in the Cross Hall of the White House, Sept. 10, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

There were few surprises in President Obama’s address to the nation last night laying out his strategy for confronting ISIS (Here’s the full text of his speech).

But there’s plenty of context to consider in order to evaluate his proposals — and lots of reactions, both favorable and otherwise.

Obama promised a “steady, relentless” campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy the terrorist group.” The specifics of the plan he unveiled last night are what most analysts expected:

  • The US will lead a sustained bombing campaign against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria. Administration officials acknowledge that this could last for several years.
  • Obama requested Congressional approval for $500 million to train and equip “moderate” Syrian rebels.
  • The US will send 475 more troops to “advise” Iraqi security forces. Obama promised that his strategy “will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
  • We will provide humanitarian relief to people displaced by ISIS fighters.
  • Obama said that “in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.”

Threat Inflation

There is broad consensus that ISIS is guilty of heinous crimes against humanity and poses a serious threat to the region — not just in Iraq and Syria, but to Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf states. An additional concern is that ISIS has attracted a number of Westerners — Time’s Francesca Trianni explains why — and Obama warned last night that these fighters, “trained and battle-hardened” could “try to return to their home countries and carry out deadly attacks.”

There is far less agreement about whether ISIS poses a direct threat to the US or its Western allies. In his speech, Obama said “left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States.” That statement was cautious compared to some of the hyperbolic rhetoric coming from other public figures, as Dan Froomkin observed this week at The Intercept.

Some defense experts have a different view. Dartmouth’s Daniel Benjamin, who was the State Department’s top counterterrorism expert during Obama’s first term, told The New York Times that “the public discussion about the ISIS threat has been a ‘farce,’ with ‘members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.”

Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government told Public Radio International that “ISIS is not all that capable. It doesn’t have an air force, it doesn’t have serious armored forces. It’s a threat to locals in the region, but it has no capacity to hit the United States in a strategically significant way.”

Christopher Dickey, writing at The Daily Beast, quotes a veteran terrorism expert who said, “The alarmism in Washington has reached such proportions, there’s a kind of ‘shock and awe in reverse.'”

All this plays to the advantage of the self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose ragtag army conquered a huge swathe of Iraq mainly by filling the vacuum left by incompetent Iraqi government military commanders. The conquest—and the reaction to it—have given him an aura of invincibility that holy-warrior wannabes find quite thrilling.

Potential Pitfalls Ahead

Matt Duss, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, writes at The American Prospect that Obama is rightly wary of further military engagement in the region, but, “pressured by a relentless drumbeat to ‘do something’—which in Washington almost always translates to: ‘Make more war!’ —the president obviously felt the need to explain that, yes, we are doing something, and here’s what it is, and we’re going to start doing a bit more of it.”

But at Foreign Policy (free registration required), Shane Harris argues that destroying ISIS is “literally impossible to do.”

Destroying the Islamic State would require a major commitment of combat ground forces, but Obama has already said that they won’t come from the United States. So right out of the gate, any strategy based on eliminating the group is hamstrung by the lack of a key ingredient. But destroying the Islamic State would also require a political reconciliation in Iraq to break the group’s alliance with Sunni tribes and Baathists and ideally turn them against the Islamic State. And it arguably requires a regional effort to counter the roots of religious extremism and prevent other militant groups, such as al-Nusra Front, from receiving money, recruiting, and spreading their ideology in the region and in the West.

And David Corn writes for Mother Jones that while the limited nature of Obama’s “war” against ISIS is laudable, it will be very difficult to maintain given the “hysteria” in Washington. “Obama’s intentions are clear: he doesn’t want to return to full-scale US military involvement in Iraq,” Corn writes. “But now that he has committed the United States to renewed military action there, where’s the line?”

In his address last night, Obama said, “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.” At ThinkProgress, Hayes Brown argues that this was “probably among the least encouraging things that Obama could possibly say.”

Yemen and Somalia have been the target of hundreds of US strikes, from not just armed drones, but also Special Forces raids and missiles launched from nearby ships. After nearly 13 years of using the authority granted to President George W. Bush to destroy al Qaeda in 2001, the United States is still trying to prevent the spread of terror in those countries, making the odds that the fight against ISIS will be a short one extremely low.

Brown notes that “while [the Yemeni al Qaeda group] continues to thrive, the Yemeni government is currently fighting to stay in power.”

There are a number of serious questions about getting involved in Syria’s civil war.

Paul Pillar, former CIA analyst and senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University, told Public Radio International, “The two principal forces involved in that civil war today are the Assad regime on the one hand, and ISIS on the other. The fact is that we would have a hard time doing something forceful against ISIS in Syria without implicitly aiding the [Assad] regime that we’ve said must go.”

Syria’s “moderate” rebel factions have been decimated during the three-year civil war. Reuters reports that “it is unclear whether more American weapons and training can shift the battlefield balance toward the US-backed rebels, who are badly out gunned by Islamic State, other militant groups and Assad’s forces. US officials describe the rebels as little match for groups such as Islamic State and its jihadist rival, the al Qaida-affiliated Nusrah Front.”

According to The New York Times, Saudi Arabia “has agreed to an American request to provide a base to train moderate Syrian opposition fighters.” But earlier this week, Agence France Presse reported that “Islamic State fighters appear to be using captured US military issue arms and weapons supplied to moderate rebels in Syria by Saudi Arabia.”

[A] study by the London-based small-arms research organisation Conflict Armament Research documented weapons seized by Kurdish forces from militants in Iraq and Syria over a 10-day period in July.

The report said the jihadists disposed of “significant quantities” of US-made small arms including M16 assault rifles and included photos showing the markings “Property of US Govt.”

It also found that anti-tank rockets used by IS in Syria were “identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operating under the Free Syrian Army umbrella in 2013.”

Politics and the Law

Obama said that he would “welcome” Congress’s input on the strategy, but insisted that he doesn’t need explicit authorization because of the authority granted to the White House in the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).

At The Diplomat, Ankit Panda argues that the “Obama administration doesn’t have the strongest legal footing to go to war against ISIS,” because it authorizes force against affiliates of al Qaeda, and “ISIS, as it happens, is no friend of Al Qaeda’s.” (See “Al-Qaeda disavows any ties with radical Islamist ISIS group in Syria, Iraq,” in The Washington Post last February.)

But at UN Dispatch, Mark Goldberg argues that Article 51 of the UN charter, which authorizes “collective self-defense,” would make the strikes legal given that the Iraqi government has asked for international assistance in defeating ISIS, and the latter is operating out of Syria.

As for the domestic politics, Scott Wong, Alexander Bolton and Mike Lillis reported earlier this week for The Hill that for different reasons, liberal and conservative lawmakers are both pushing for a vote on the use of force. But both Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate are wary of what could end up being a difficult vote for their members.

Slate’s Dave Weigel says that a clear pattern has emerged as he’s spoken to Republican lawmakers. “Republicans would explain why a feckless and failing President Obama let Iraq fall to pieces, and then commit to supporting (with or without a vote) an action that made sense… See the pattern? Obama screwed up; here’s his money. There’s no detectable conservative rebellion” against Obama’s request for funds to train groups fighting ISIS.

As far as the mood of the American public is concerned, earlier this week, The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald wrote that both the legitimate horrors ISIS has perpetuated and the inflation of the threat that it poses to the US have pushed the public from war-weariness to a position of broad support for more US military action in the region.

International Reaction

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said this morning that the UK won’t participate in airstrikes against targets in Syria, but wouldn’t rule out airstrikes in Iraq. As to the larger campaign, he added, “We are clear that we will make a contribution.” On Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that his country would take part in strikes in Iraq “if necessary.” (Last week, Hayes Brown compared the “core coalition” Obama is bringing together with George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing” 11 years ago.)

Russia and China have both supported the Assad regime in Syria, and opposed US intervention in the conflict. The BBC reports that the Russian Foreign Ministry condemned the plan, saying that any attacks without UN authorization would be an “act of aggression.” But according to CNN’s Katie Hunt, “with Beijing’s growing unease about terrorist threats by Islamist extremists at home, analysts say China — a UN Security Council permanent member – is unlikely to oppose plans to build a ‘broad coalition’ to go after ISIS.”

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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