10 Sep Obama Walks a Thin Line on ISIS
A few minutes ago, President Obama addressed the nation to explain his new policy to contain and destroy ISIS. He is walking a fine line: more airstrikes but no direct ground invasion. Instead, he will fund, equip, and train foreign troops to engage in the ground fighting themselves. While this is a politically popular view (ground troops are always risky), it has serious operational deficits. The U.S. has a history of training and equipping foreign troops and the results are usually unimpressive. Too often the money gets diverted and the weapons have a longer shelf life than the military organization that receives them. What happens when the political winds in the region shift? The weapons will still be there, used by actors in ways we can’t now imagine. It won’t be a pretty sight.
Obama’s view on Article II was somewhat schizophrenic. He said that he was asking for congressional authorization for the operation, though he took great pains to emphasize that he didn’t technically need congressional assent. So he is trying to have his cake and eat it too: appear sympathetic to congress while at the same time upholding a strong view of the Article II commander-in-chief power.
Of course, he said nothing about the War Powers Resolution and why he feels that he could go ahead with the operation even in the absence of congressional authorization. He has been sending multiple War Powers letters to Congress each time the military engages in a discrete operation — suggesting that he believes that he can segment military operations into small bits and pieces in order to avoid the 60/90-day limit in the War Powers Resolution. That’s a dangerous precedent, since every war is just an aggregation of small military engagements. If the segmentation move works in this case, it will work in every case, and the 60/90-day limit will be meaningless.
As for international authority, he said nothing. Well, almost nothing. He said that ISIS was not a “state” — a fact which implicitly negates the need for international authority. For operations conducted in Iraq, the U.S. will be operating with the consent of the new Iraqi government, so no sovereignty issues will be triggered. In Syria, the situation is more complicated. U.S. forces will be acting with the consent of the opposition there, though whether Assad will give his consent to operations in Syria seems unlikely. But perhaps the U.S. will rely exclusively on proxy forces in Syria. He was vague on this. There was no discussion of Security Council authorization, though he did discuss the need for a coalition to fight ISIS.
My view is that ISIS represents a far greater threat than al-Qaeda ever posed. ISIS currently controls a large swath of territory and they have even larger ambitions. With a radical ideology and the territory to implement it against a domestic population, ISIS could create a home base for international jihad. Combine those ideological commitments with foreign fighters with foreign passports, and you have a recipe for disaster. Beheading a couple of journalists was only the beginning. And western countries aren’t the only ones to fear. ISIS has shown particular contempt and anger towards fellow Muslims who reject their radical vision. So the need for a broad coalition to defeat ISIS, with western and Middle East partners, is clear. Whether the plan outlined today is enough, I don’t know. I sure hope it is. Otherwise we will be staring at the new face of violent jihadism for the next decade.