Skip to 1:00 for the key bit. Blake Hounshell calls this big news, which I suppose it is. A year ago at this time, Obama was getting ready to bomb Syria to weaken Assad; a year later, here’s his deputy National Security Advisor refusing to rule out bombing Syria to weaken Assad’s chief opposition. Droning jihadis in places we don’t have boots on the ground is SOP for Obama, though. How big this news is depends on what sort of air assets Rhodes imagines us using in Syria and what sort of ISIS targets Obama’s willing to engage. If all he means is droning jihadi terror camps, that’s no great shakes. Why would we hold off on doing that in Syria when we don’t hold off in Pakistan and Yemen, two nominal allies of the United States? If he means using more muscular — and manned — aircraft, though, and if he’s imagining bombing ISIS’s front lines, that’s more significant. (It would also kinda sorta make us Assad’s air force, wouldn’t it?) Rhodes explicitly frames cross-border attacks in terms of protecting Americans here, which makes me think they’ll limit them to terror camps for now. Either way, I wonder when O’s planning to have a little chat with the public about just how broad the new war against ISIS could get. This piece by Brian Fishman smartly argues that the disjunction between Obama’s rhetoric and the reality of what it’ll take to stop ISIS is so wide that public disillusionment is all but guaranteed:
No one has offered a plausible strategy to defeat ISIL that does not include a major U.S. commitment on the ground and the renewal of functional governance on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border. And no one will, because none exists. But that has not prevented a slew of hacks and wonks from suggesting grandiose policy goals without paying serious attention to the costs of implementation and the fragility of the U.S. political consensus for achieving those goals. Although ISIL has some characteristics of a state now, it still has the resilience of an ideologically motivated terrorist organization that will survive and perhaps even thrive in the face of setbacks. We must never again make the mistake that we made in 2008, which was to assume that we have destroyed a jihadist organization because we have pushed it out of former safe-havens and inhibited its ability to hold territory. Bombing ISIL will not destroy it. Giving the Kurds sniper rifles or artillery will not destroy it. A new prime minister in Iraq will not destroy it…
Advocating the defeat of ISIL over the short-term without acknowledging what will be necessary to achieve that end is a recipe for mission creep. Mission creep is a recipe for policy failure because the American people will not allow sustained investment in a policy they did not commit to originally.
This is the most important strategic lesson from Iraq: Don’t bullshit the American people into a war with shifting objectives (even if those goals are important) because they will not put up with that commitment long enough for those goals to be achieved. This is not a call for pacifism; it is a call for fighting to win, which requires sustained commitment, which requires forthrightness in our discourse about whether to choose war. We should only fight if we are fighting to win, and we will only win when we commit as a country—not 51 percent, or the viewers of one cable news station or another, or because one party or faction has managed to back a president into a political corner. The country must be ready to accept the sacrifices necessary to achieve grand political ends. Until then, any call to “defeat ISIL” that is not forthright about what that will require is actually an argument for expensive failure.
Ironically, the reason Obama wavered on bombing Assad after he gassed Syrians was precisely because he doubted the public’s appetite for any new military commitments. And the commitment involved in punching Assad in the face was, as Fishman notes, much, much smaller than the commitment that’ll be needed to defeat ISIS. What we’re apt to end up with, I think, is a commitment to punch ISIS in the face, not to win. We can hurt them; we can provide cover for the Kurdish and Iraqi armies; but obviously there’ll be no hammer and anvil strategy in Syria with American troops running over ISIS from one direction while Assad’s army runs over them from another. This’ll be a proxy war, with lots of American arms for the peshmerga and the Iraqis. Is that enough? 17,000 fighters and counting, guys. Get comfortable.
By the way, in case you missed it in headlines, ISIS apparently demanded a ransom of $132 million for James Foley. Obama, post-Bergdahl, wisely refused to pay the danegeld, no doubt knowing that terror groups are making big bank these days by extorting moronic European governments into paying huge sums for the return of prisoners. The next attack on America might well be funded by that euro-blackmail.