Republicans are redeploying the “containment” line against President Barack Obama, rehashing a rhetorical attack with a word that, if too blunt a term for the complex threat posted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, does carry a certain weight.
Last year when conservatives accused Obama of “containment” they were complaining about the administration’s willingness to deal with Iran. Republicans claimed that the president ultimately would permit Iran to retain the capability to create a nuclear bomb, containing their ambitions rather than destroying that capability. Obama has rejected the assertion repeatedly, saying he would take U.S. military action, if necessary. “As president of the United States, I don’t bluff,” he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, in March. But the effect was clear:
Republicans called Obama weak and the president has spent valuable time countering the perception.
This month, the day that Obama announced he had authorized air strikes in Iraq, key conservative national security voices instantly revived the containment warning.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., released a joint statement saying, “A policy of containment will not work against ISIS. It is inherently expansionist and must be stopped.”
“The longer we wait to act, the worse this threat will become, as recent events clearly show,” they wrote, at the time.
On Sunday, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said. “[A] containment strategy is not going to cut it,”
“We need a strategy that’s going to expand the airstrikes,” she said, calling for stronger support for the Kurds and also the moderate opposition in Syria. “We have to do that if we want to defeat ISIS.”
McCain and Graham also echoed Ayotte on Sunday, arguing that limited air strikes on Islamic State fighters in Iraq will not defeat the group—only in combination with a broader military campaign that targets the militants in neighboring Syria.
“This is an administration of which the kindest word I can use is ‘feckless,’” McCain said. “No more ‘leading from behind,’ no more ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ … Mr. President, don’t be ashamed of re-evaluating your view of the role of the United States in the world, because we have shown over the last six years exactly what happens when we don’t lead and create a vacuum.”
“They’re not the JV team anymore, they’re the most prominent terrorist organization in the world,” Graham said, referring to a comment from Obama widely read as his assessment of the Islamic State, though White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that the president was speaking more broadly and not specifically about the group.
“There’s no way you can solve the problem in Iraq without hitting them in Syria,” Graham said.
He followed up Monday afternoon with a series of tweets: “The White House is trying to minimize the threat we face in order to justify not changing a failed strategy” and “The President is becoming derelict in his duties as Commander in Chief … by not aggressively confronting ISIL wherever they reside, including Syria.”
The trio’s criticism of Obama for lacking a strategy on any particular security issue is well worn. Now they are applying it toward defeating the Islamic State, and demanding escalating military action against the group in Syria as well. But by invoking “containment,” they are trotting out a party line that has been more effective in promoting the president as passive, weak and indecisive on issues from Syria to Russia to Iran—a narrative that the administration has struggled to counter.
And in recent days, academics and current and former Obama officials have given Obama’s “containment” critics an opening.
Max Boot, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in London-based The Spectator on Aug. 16, “So far President Obama has talked only of containing ISIS, of preventing it from massacring Yazidis or taking Erbil. That’s not enough.”
“If left unchecked, this terrorist playpen is likely to generate attacks not only on neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Jordan but on western targets too. The West’s goal should be rollback, not containment.”
James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq under Obama and national security advisor under George W. Bush, with a special focus on Iran, said on Aug. 20 that the president has “a pretty good strategy” for Iraq. But, he added, “We have to lead from the front, containment is defeat for us.”
On Friday, Joshua Landis, author of the Syria Comment blog and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, issued a similar lament.
“Push [the Islamic State] out of Iraq, contain them in Syria. That’s been our strategy for the last three and a half years,” Landis told NPR, continuing, “Contain violence in Syria. Don’t try to solve it.”
“And chances are Obama’s going to stick to his script.”
The day prior, at the Pentagon, CBS News’ Margaret Brennan asked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “Do you believe that ISIS can be defeated or destroyed without addressing the cross-border threat from Syria? And is it possible to contain them?”
“Yes, the answer is they can be contained, not in perpetuity,” Dempsey said, but he noted that the complete eradication of the group would require an offensive in both Iraq and Syria, overt help from friendly regional regimes, and an accompanying whole-of-government interagency attack on the popularity of the group’s ideology across the region.
“This is an organization that has an apocalyptic end-of-days strategic vision and which will eventually have to be defeated,” he continued. “To your question, can they be defeated without addressing that part of their organization which resides in Syria? The answer is no.”
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., cited Dempsey on Sunday. “What I want to hear from the president is that he has a strategy to finish ISIS off,” Ryan said. “I don’t want to be an armchair general and tell you how this needs to be done, but I would reference the fact that Dempsey did say that to do this correctly that Syria is going to have to be part of this equation.”
The generals, for their part, argue that the limited U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have halted the Islamic State’s momentum and allowed Kurdish and Iraqi Security Forces to take the lead in pushing back the militant groups’ gains. Pentagon and White House officials are currently preparing recommendations to the president on potential options for a long-term strategy to defeat the Islamic State, but they have emphasized the solution is not strictly military, nor solely the responsibility of the U.S. military.