SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – After a summer in which Islamic State militants have rampaged through Iraq and Syria, declared an Islamic caliphate, recruited extremists from abroad and claimed credit for decapitating American journalist James Foley, President Obama vowed earlier this week that “justice will be done” to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIL or simply the Islamic State—a group that Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey have called an “imminent threat” to the United States with an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision.”
But the president has long resisted getting “dragged back into another ground war in Iraq,” as he recently reiterated, and in a White House press conference on Thursday, he made clear he has not yet made up his mind about how exactly to counter the terrorist group, aside from dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to talk with other countries in the region and tasking Hagel and Dempsey to “prepare a range of options.” Asked whether he would get approval from Congress before potentially going into Syria, Obama said it would depend what kind of intervention, if any, the United States pursues: “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he admitted.
While the president deliberates, we at Politico Magazine decided to ask for some suggestions, and so went to some of the country’s top defense thinkers—hailing from the military brass to the Pentagon to Congress. Here’s what they think Obama’s strategy should look like.
Bomb the Islamic State
By Maj. Gen. Charles J. Dunlap
Some evils in this world can only be stopped by force. ISIL is one of them.
ISIL might be adept at sadistically brutalizing the helpless, but if President Obama orders a robust and sustained American air campaign, the militants might well find themselves on the receiving end of military force so ferocious that it could unhinge their most hardened fighters.
Some pundits like to insist that airpower can’t do much, but they need to look harder at how ISIL’s style creates liabilities for itself. ISIL arrogantly eschews the furtive, hit-and-run tactics that other Iraqi (and Afghan) militants used to escape being bludgeoned by U.S. fighters and bombers. Rather, they like to collect themselves into brazenly visible groups and use their reputation for savagery to scatter their already terrorized opponents.
All of this actually makes them vulnerable to a determined American air campaign. Among other things, ISIL isn’t going to “scatter” or intimidate American airpower. What’s more, ISIL’s penchant for operating openly—as well as for seizing, occupying and trying to administer territory instead of hiding quietly among the civilian populace—presents targeting opportunities that other terrorists assiduously avoid.
If American airpower dominates the skies, no ISIL militant can count on seeing another sunrise. Some ISIL fighters might think they can endure airstrikes having undergone some desultory bombing by Syrian or Iraqi air forces, but that experience doesn’t give them even an inkling of the hell that the United States can unleash from the air.
All human beings have a primal fear of being relentlessly hunted by a ruthless predator against which they have no defense. And that is exactly the kind of psychological effect that today’s airpower can impose on ISIL. At a minimum, a muscular American air campaign can force the group to become so preoccupied with its own survival that its dream of establishing a terror caliphate is bound to suffer.
Airpower can also be applied without putting American “boots on the ground,” as the president has promised to avoid. Of course, ground-based spotters can help in certain, very specific circumstances, but U.S. airpower can conduct precision strikes deep into enemy-held territory without such assistance. Once an air campaign forces ISIL to give up operating openly and obliges them to disperse and hide, local ground forces can direct airstrikes that are very discreet and accurate.
Will using force against ISIL invite terror attacks in the United States? Certainly not to any greater degree than is already the case. If we want to have any real hope of preventing such attacks, ISIL needs to be struck—hard, and now.
Airpower or, indeed, any kind of military force isn’t the whole solution to the ideological threat ISIL poses. But it’s a grave mistake to underestimate what it can do—immediately—to halt ISIL’s barbarism and give real hope to the forces battling them.
Charles J. Dunlap, a retired Air Force major general, is professor and executive director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University School of Law.
Strike the Enemy, Arm the Rebels
Since he ran against Barack Obama in 2008 as the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain has become the president’s fiercest critic on foreign policy. This is especially true when it comes to the rise of the Islamic State terrorist organization, what McCain has called “probably the greatest threat to the security of the United States since the end of the Cold War.”
McCain has been ahead of almost everyone else on Capitol Hill in calling for military assistance to the moderate rebel Free Syrian Army and, more recently, U.S. air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria. And within hours of Obama’s White House news conference Thursday—his first since returning from vacation—the Arizona senator blasted the president for appearing to hesitate yet again over how to respond to the threat from Islamic State. “I’m still recovering from watching it,” McCain said in a telephone interview with Politico Magazine, repeating one of Obama’s remarks in disbelief. “‘We don’t have a strategy yet?’ The president articulated a view of the world that is Orwellian. … There’s no recognition of what we’re facing there.” (In his news conference, Obama said he was still examining “a range of options” about what the United States could do to go after ISIL in Syria.)
McCain accused the Obama White House of inducing both Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey to “walk back” strident remarks they made about the Islamic State earlier in the week, in which they appeared to suggest that U.S. military action in Syria might be imminent. “His people, especially Dempsey and Hagel, got way out front there,” said McCain. “They painted a picture that requires action, and then within 24 hours you saw them both backtrack—what can only be described as a complete reversal.” (White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden responded: “The idea that the president, or anyone at the White House, pressured Secretary Hagel or Chairman Dempsey to walk back their comments is just plain false.” The Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, also said the allegation was “absolutely untrue.”)
McCain believes the United States should target the Islamic State from the air in both Iraq and Syria and arm the Kurdish pesh merga, though it should not go so far as to ally with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Their main operations are still conducted out of bases in Syria, so we have to go after them there,” he said of ISIL. “I would even establish that humanitarian zone we’ve talked about and I still support equipping the Free Syrian Army to the point where they can be major players.” —Michael Hirsh
Root Out Extremist Ideology
By Douglas Feith
The ISIL threat is pushing President Obama into military action. But the U.S. strategy should be more than force.
The most salient characteristic of the Islamic State is that it’s ideological. These aren’t people engaged in ordinary interest politics. They are religious extremists who, with extraordinary brutality, are trying to remake the world according to what they believe are the dictates of Islam. And if we’re going to stop them, to deal with them as an enemy and a “cancer,” as the president has said we have to do, we should try to understand what they believe—what ideas motivate them. To defeat them, we have to counter their ability to replenish and grow their force, to recruit and indoctrinate new members. In other words, we have to counter the appeal of their ideology.
The U.S. government is not good at understanding, much less battling against, the ideology of Islamist extremists. This was a problem even before the Obama administration, but it is certainly still a problem now. Soon after President Obama came into office, his counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, and now CIA director, gave aspeech in which he explained how President Obama’s approach to fighting terrorists was different from President Bush’s:
Portraying this as a “global” war risks reinforcing the very image that al Qaeda seeks to project of itself—that it is a highly organized, global entity capable of replacing sovereign nations with a global caliphate. And nothing could be further from the truth. … Nor does President Obama see this challenge as a fight against “jihadists.” Describing terrorists in this way—using a legitimate term, “jihad,” meaning to purify oneself or to wage a holy struggle for a moral goal—risks giving these murderers the religious legitimacy they desperately seek but in no way deserve. Worse, it risks reinforcing the idea that the United States is somehow at war with Islam itself.