Looks like “they” at the Obama White House underestimated George W. Bush as a strategist, along with ISIS as a threat and Iraq as a “strong, stable ally.” They aren’t done with underestimating Bush, as White House national-security adviser Tony Blinken demonstrated in appearance yesterday on CNN’s State of the Union. After insisting that Barack Obama wasn’t walking into al-Qaeda’s trap by sending in an occupying force to fight ISIS, Crowley pointed out that Obama had adopted the Bush-era strategy of forward action against terrorism (via RCP):
CANDY CROWLEY: And does it — moving to the region now and what’s going on there, airstrikes now along the Turkish/Syrian border, it does seem that, very often, when any kind of Western power, particularly in the Middle East, takes on some kind of military operation, that it creates enemies, as well as destroys other enemies.
And isn’t that what — what those bulletins are about, is, are we making things more dangerous on the streets by doing this or safer?
TONY BLINKEN: Candy, we have to get ahead of this problem.
ISIL presents an immediate threat to people in the region, including to Americans in the region. And it’s been very clear that, over time, if it’s left unchecked, it will present a threat here at home and to our partners in Europe. So we need to get ahead of it. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.
But keep in mind, we’re doing this in a very different way than in the past. We’re not sending in hundreds of thousands of American troops. We’re not spending trillions of American dollars. What we are doing is empowering local actors with some of the huge assets we can bring to this, like our airpower, intelligence, training and equipping, advising and assisting.
And we’re not falling into the al Qaeda trap of sending tens of thousands of Americans in, where they get bogged down, tied down, and bled, which is exactly what al Qaeda wants. We’re being smart about this. This is a sustainable way to get at the terrorists. And it’s also a more effective way.
CROWLEY: But are you at the same time buying into what was the Bush belief that you — President Bush belief that we go get them before they come get us?
BLINKEN: Yes, but look at who is doing it. We took action in Syria this week with five Arab nations flying with us. We have a coalition now of more than 50 countries from all around the world, including in the region. This is not America against ISIL. This is the international community against a threat that is posed in the first and foremost to countries in the region, but represents a threat to everyone.
Well, we had three of the same five Arab nations in our coalition for the 2003 ground invasion, too, plus dozens of other countries on the ground and in the air. It wasn’t America against Saddam Hussein either, not in 1991 nor in 2003. Furthermore, by 2008 we had largely solved the AQI/ISIS problem because we were on the ground to deal with it. It was AQI that got bled dry, and their recruitment in Libya and Syria, thanks to our ability to act as guarantor for the Sunni tribes of western Iraq with the Shi’ite-dominated government in Baghdad. That fight forced AQI to take on our military rather than build resources to attack us in the West, let alone hold any ground in Iraq or Syria. Only after betraying those pledges to Sunni tribal leaders and abruptly leaving did the terrorist army arise and start to overwhelm the sectarian government in Baghdad and its purged army.
The “trap” talk is nonsense, on a couple of levels. Our forces outfought AQI/ISIS every step of the way when properly resourced, especially after late 2006 when we ramped up our troop levels rather than rely on the light footprint that supposedly would prevent an occupying force from looking like an occupying force. Blinken’s explanation assumes that the US will build no resentment or propaganda opportunities by using air power alone, but the inability to control ground and work with friendly local populations actually makes that situation worse rather than better. In order to hit ISIS, we and our partners will have to hit population centers and incur significant civilian casualties, some (not all) of which might be avoided if we had ground forces to force them out of the towns and cities first.
At some point, those ground troops will have to be used if we aren’t to just use a futile “bomb them into the Stone Age” strategy. When that day comes, perhaps Barack Obama will be able to claim that Blinken underestimated the problem, too.