More evidence of America leading from behind, or the fruition of Barack Obama’s tactical approach to ISIS? The Arab League, urged on by its chief Nabil Elaraby, announced today that it would “comprehensively confront” the terrorist army of ISIS, with an emphasis on comprehensive strategy. That includes militarily, hinting at the potential for ground operations:
The foreign ministers of the Arab League agreed Sunday to confront ISIS “militarily and politically” as well as to cooperate with ongoing efforts by the international community and Iraq to combat the Islamist militants who have gained control over large parts of Syria and Iraq.
“What is happening in Iraq, and the presence of an armed terrorist group that not only challenges the state authority but its very existence and that of other countries … is one of the examples of the challenges that are violently shaking the world,” The Associated Press quoted Nabil Elarabi, the Arab League’s secretary-general, as telling the foreign ministers at a meeting in Cairo, Egypt Sunday. …
The Arab Leagues – which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – also endorsed a U.N. Security Council resolution passed in August urging member states to “act to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.”
Arab countries need a “clear and firm decision for a comprehensive confrontation” to “cancerous and terrorist” groups, Elarabi said.
In an interview with London-based Asharq Al-Awsat, Elaraby said that the “unprecedented challenges” ISIS presents requires a pan-Arabic response to reinforce the sovereignty of states in the region, as well as to put an end to the myriad atrocities perpetrated by the terrorist army:
Asharq Al-Awsat: What recommendations will you make at the Arab foreign ministers’ meeting to confront the current challenges?
Nabil Elaraby: The ministerial meeting—held on Sunday—must . . . make a crucial decision to confront the unprecedented challenges facing the Arab world today. They are not just conflicts within states, but phenomena we have not seen before—extremist groups that carry out terrorist attacks and contravene all principles of human behavior, announcing the creation of a new state on the territories of two Arab states, Iraq and Syria.
This is not acceptable at all, and the foreign ministers’ meeting must rise to this challenge and make decisions that prove equal to this dangerous challenge. The required response here is a political, security, ideological and cultural confrontation, because the danger is massive, and therefore it is unreasonable not to have a clear reaction from the Arab world, and we are not expecting other parties to intervene.
This last statement in particular is very interesting. The Arab League did not take a position on the current US intervention in Iraq, which analysts considered a tacit endorsement of action against ISIS while the Arab League gets its collective heads together on explicit action. The call to intervene militarily may vindicate Obama’s decision to explicitly state that US ground forces will not be part of the fight against ISIS, a pronouncement which puzzled and frustrated many for tipping the American hand to ISIS. Obama adviser Jonathan Prince argued to Ron Fournier that it was a signal to the Arab League that it’s time for them to step up:
— jonathan prince (@jonathanmprince) September 7, 2014
At the White House, I found two senior officials who, when promised anonymity, acknowledged that politics plays at least a part in the president’s no-ground-troops pledge. It’s not a matter of midterm strategy, they insisted, but rather a reflection of the public’s aversion to war. “Any presidential historian will tell you,” one official told me, “that you can’t get ahead of the public when it comes to war.”
A couple of problems with that rationale. First, there is no shortage of examples of presidents who led once-reluctant Americans to war. Second, while the explanation might explain why Obama has decided not to commit ground troops, it doesn’t explain why he made that decision public.
The second official essentially concurred with Prince. Obama is signaling to potential allies in the region that it’s finally time for them to start spilling blood, because the United States won’t. That’s exactly the posture Obama should take, in my opinion, but why couldn’t he make the point privately?
Perhaps the president believes that Islamic extremists are setting a trap; there’s nothing they’d like more than U.S. forces on the ground, which they know would spur recruitment, and they believe could be defeated. Obama may be telling the Islamic State leadership, loudly, “We’re not falling for that. We’re going to get you another way.” If that’s his motive, he needs to be more clear.
Barring a better answer from the president or his people, it appears that the no-boots pledge is, at least in part, a response to domestic politcs. While I applaud Obama’s aversion to another ground war, I would abhor a White House political strategy that, even in only the smallest way, might help the enemy.
Even if this turns out to be a successful stroke of head-faking, we may still worry about what that will mean in the long run. We may well cheer the entry of an Arab League military alliance taking the field against ISIS, sweeping them into the dustbin of history, but will it stop there? The Saudis aren’t likely to leave Bashar al-Assad to prevail in Syria while wiping out one of his enemies, for instance, and the sweep of united Sunni Arab armies will eventually meet the Shi’ites of Iraq and Iran near and in Baghdad. (They may not be particularly fond of the Kurds either.) Iran isn’t likely to stand by while its Syrian partner and their Hezbollah proxy army falls under the Sunni boot, and certainly won’t appreciate Sunni armies marching on Baghdad, whether under the banner of ISIS or the Saudis. This might be the pretext of a pan-Islamic war, and we may well regret the choice of pushing it forward.