Well, this sounds a bit like a strategy, does it not? John Kerry’s essay in the New York Times this weekend (in one of the more sleepy news cycles of the year) raises echoes from both Bush administrations in dealing with a clear threat to global security, and in fact explicitly cites the first Bush coalition to repel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. That has its own irony, but we’ll get back to that in a moment. Kerry prefaces this call for a global coalition on the imminent and clear threat from ISIS, which Kerry argues exceeds that of any previous Islamist terror network:
ISIS has its origins in what was once known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has over a decade of experience in extremist violence. The group has amassed a hardened fighting force of committed jihadists with global ambitions, exploiting the conflict in Syria and sectarian tensions in Iraq. Its leaders have repeatedly threatened the United States, and in May an ISIS-associated terrorist shot and killed three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. (A fourth victim died 13 days later.) ISIS’ cadre of foreign fighters are a rising threat not just in the region, but anywhere they could manage to travel undetected — including to America.
There is evidence that these extremists, if left unchecked, will not be satisfied at stopping with Syria and Iraq. They are larger and better funded in this new incarnation, using pirated oil, kidnapping and extortion to finance operations in Syria and Iraq. They are equipped with sophisticated heavy weapons looted from the battlefield. They have already demonstrated the ability to seize and hold more territory than any other terrorist organization, in a strategic region that borders Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and is perilously close to Israel.
All true — but almost all of it downplayed by Kerry’s boss over the last couple of weeks, too. Barack Obama has tried to take the pressure off of his lack of response by claiming that the world isn’t really a more dangerous place these days, but that it just feels like it because of social media. Kerry’s statement here directly contradicts that claim made just one day earlier by citing the imminent, new, and much deeper threat from ISIS. One could get whiplash trying to keep up with the widely diverging messages coming from the Obama administration.
Ron Fournier scoffed at Obama’s claim this morning, as did most of the rest of the world in the past few days, especially those threatened by ISIS and other radical Sunni networks. That now includes Israel, as Reuters reports and as Kerry warned, although not from ISIS directly:
Israel’s frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.
The Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge. …
“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al Qaeda, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al Qaeda.
Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.
“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it’s very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields…”
Kerry cited Bush 41 as the model for international intervention:
Coalition building is hard work, but it is the best way to tackle a common enemy. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the first President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III did not act alone or in haste. They methodically assembled a coalition of countries whose concerted action brought a quick victory.
Geoffrey Norman points out that this is quite a switch for Kerry:
What the secretary neglects to mention is that … as a member of the Senate, he voted against the congressional resolution authorizing military force in Iraq in 1990.
That’s not the full extent of the switch, either. The coalition-building effort Kerry proposes to deal with this clear and present danger in a manner more reminiscent of Bush 43 rather than Bush 41:
Next week, on the sidelines of the NATO summit meeting in Wales, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and I will meet with our counterparts from our European allies. The goal is to enlist the broadest possible assistance. Following the meeting, Mr. Hagel and I plan to travel to the Middle East to develop more support for the coalition among the countries that are most directly threatened.
During his own 2004 run for the presidency, Kerry derided Bush’s coalition effort for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even though it had dozens of nations in support and more than a dozen of them contributing boots on the ground. Kerry, and then Obama after that in 2008, derided Bush for not getting a United Nations sanction for the invasion, even though it later came out that both Russia and France had corrupted the Oil for Food program and had clear incentives to maintain the status quo. This time around, Kerry cites the UN, but doesn’t argue that the US and its coalition of the willing needs its imprimatur. Instead, Kerry makes the effort this month at Turtle Bay sound more like a recruiting effort:
The United States will hold the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in September, and we will use that opportunity to continue to build a broad coalition and highlight the danger posed by foreign terrorist fighters, including those who have joined ISIS. During the General Assembly session, President Obama will lead a summit meeting of the Security Council to put forward a plan to deal with this collective threat.
Obama may win a Security Council resolution for armed force to stop ISIS, especially with Pope Francis’ call for action still hanging in the air. The situation has become that bad in Iraq to where no nation except perhaps Iran benefits from the disaster unfolding there, and Iran doesn’t have a seat on the UNSC. Jordan does have a seat on the council, as does Rwanda, whose familiarity with genocides might tip it either way. The big question at the UN will be what China and Russia do, and with the EU and US pressuring Vladimir Putin on Ukraine, it’s probably a safe bet that Putin will exert a large amount of arm-twisting to allow Western initiatives at the UN for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, even Russia and China can’t be very pleased at the rise of ISIS — and the fight against ISIS helps their client Bashar al-Assad in the long run.
What happens if Obama can’t get a Security Council blessing for the coalition? Kerry’s essay strongly implies that the US will lead those nations willing to take action regardless of what happens, which sounds very, very familiar. It also sounds like a pretty good strategy at this point, and perhaps the only one emerging from the White House at this time.