At a press conference in Turkey yesterday Barack Obama appeared defensive, testy, and without passion when asked whether his ISIS-strategy is actually working. He emphasized that he has always said the effort to degrade and destroy ISIS is a long term endeavor in which there will be setbacks, and stated that in the end the current approach will turn out to be the right one. In the US the usual suspects on the right blamed Obama for lack of leadership and being feckless, while more moderate commentators agreed that the optics of Obama’s presser had been awful, and that a showing of more emotion would have been in order. But as inadequate as the President’s presentation may have been, his frustration is understandable. He knows that none of his critics has even a fraction of the knowledge that was exhibited in David Ignatius’s brilliant piece in ‘The Atlantic’ about the emergence of ISIS, and that in particular candidates for the Republican nomination will use the Paris attacks for grandstanding that satisfies the bellicose feelings of their own following, but that will damage the anti-terrorist toils and eventually help ISIS.
Obama’s strategy is rooted in two convictions, namely that the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria can only be won by local forces, who will have an interest in the governance of the region after the ‘caliphate’ has been eliminated, and that any appearance of a war of cultures, specifically Christianity versus Islam, has to be avoided, because it would only play into ISIS’s hand. In both areas the GOP critics of Obama show their usual stupidity. While Donald Trump only calls for a ‘modest’ force on the ground, Lindsey Graham and John McCain have at least 10,000 troops in mind. Jeb Bush sounds like an echo of his brother when he talks about invading Syria, which is not surprising considering that he has the same neo-con advisors, with similar disregard for what happens after a military victory has been achieved. On the ideological side there are the demands to declare war on ‘radical Islam’ rather than terrorists, the term Obama prefers to separate the jihadists from the 1.5 billion Muslims who are not killing innocent civilians. The drive among GOP governors to not admit Syrian refugees or only Christians makes things worse.
Falling in the trap of the recommendations that are so callously trumpeted by GOP politicians and talk radio loonies would have serious consequences. It would again create the images of US soldiers harassing Muslims in the Middle East that have helped ISIS grow to where it is today, and it would again create a political vacuum in the area that the US and its allies cannot fill, but that the next incarnation of ISIS will gratefully occupy once the US troops have been withdrawn.
And that is only the military and political fallout, but on the moral battlefield the US defeat would be even worse. Dana Milbank in his Washington Post column compared the racist xenophobia towards Syrian Muslim refugees with the attitude that kept Jewish refugees out of the US in the 1930s, and that bankruptcy of tolerance and inclusiveness would be a huge ISIS victory.
With all the bad options, one thing we all can do immediately is start calling ISIS ‘DAESH,’ as John Kerry does. It is the acronym for the group’s Arabic name: al-Dawla al-Islamya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham, but as per the Boston Globe it also means ‘a bigot who imposes his view on others,’ and they hate it.