If only the U.S. had an “effective partner” on the ground in Iraq, things would be different, said President Barack Obama. If only the U.S. could find adequately trained and equipped ground troops to complement its air campaign against the Islamic State, the commander-in-chief said. If only the world had a fighting force that could defeat and destroy ISIS, Obama said, standing inside of the Pentagon, headquarters of the self-proclaimed greatest fighting force the world has ever known. If only.
Obama’s brief Pentagon appearance on Monday may seem like tragic theater to his critics, who for three years have clamored for America to get back in the Middle East fight, use overt U.S. military force to topple or at least help knock out the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and in the process save millions of innocents (including American hostages) from the Turkish border to the Indian Ocean. But Obama’s soliloquy contained a characteristic reprise: No, not again.
In more than six years since taking office—longer if you count his 2008 campaign speeches—Obama has held firm on one principle for his U.S. foreign policy and global security: he set the bar for U.S. military intervention higher than it’s been since 9/11, and kept it there. At least “intervention” as defined as the kind of large-scale U.S. ground forces deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan last decade.
At some point since ’08, it must have seemed like this was a best-of-both-worlds foreign policy. Americans are by now familiar with the president’s script. Start no more major wars, send no divisions of soldiers and Marines to occupy Islamic lands, dispatch no squads to die on dusty, IED-infested streets. Not another Iraq. Not another Afghanistan. He has repeated it over and over. In his famous Cairo speech in 2009, he said, “Iraq’s sovereignty is its own,” driving the point that U.S. troops were leaving and the United States would not be Iraq’s “patron.” At the United Nations in 2013, Obama responded to critics by outlining his five objectives for the Middle East, and saying, “I also believe that we can rarely achieve these objectives through unilateral American action – particularly with military action.” Last September at the White House, Obama said of ISIS, “This is not our fight alone. American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.”
But Obama’s narrative is wearing thin. United States military, intelligence and private military forces are involved quite heavily in the war on terrorism, despite his administration’s use of the rhetorical masterpiece “boots on the ground.” Instead, Obama uses U.S. technological precision to manhunt for terrorists and send casualty-proof air assets and small-squad covert operatives to kill foreign fighters, so often and so far from journalists’ watchful eyes. Rarely does the president talk about these tools of war against terrorism, much less explain or extoll them for public audiences (or those drum-beating critics). And ISIS, despite casualty estimates in the tens of thousands, is quite masterfully surviving it. On Monday, Obama admitted it and dug in his heels.
Meanwhile, his critics continue to demand “more”: more military intervention, in more conflicts, sooner. More troops, more ships, more lethal power, from creating and enforcing no-fly zones across entire countries to re-invading Iraqi cities door-by-door, killing one terrorist at a time.
It’s just not going to happen. Obama seems to be sticking to his guns, having calculated that the threat to the United States and American citizens, much less allies, remains remote enough that it does not warrant sending U.S. ground troops to fight the Middle East’s fight for them. “There are no current plans to do so. That’s not something that we currently discussed,” Obama said Monday, standing in front of the 4-star generals who command troops in the Middle East and Africa and who supply the special operators for the fight.
“One of the principles that we all agree on, though — and I pressed folks pretty hard because in these conversations with my military advisors I want to make sure I’m getting blunt and unadultered [sic] uncensored advice. But in every one of the conversations that we’ve had, the strong consensus is that in order for us to succeed long-term in this fight against ISIL, we have to develop local security forces that can sustain progress.
It is not enough for us to simply send in American troops to temporarily set back organizations like ISIL, but to then, as soon as we leave, see that void filled once again with extremists. It is going to be vital for us to make sure that we are preparing the kinds of local ground forces and security forces with our partners that can not only succeed against ISIL, but then sustain in terms of security and in terms of governance.
Because if we try to do everything ourselves all across the Middle East, all across North Africa, we’ll be playing Whac-a-Mole and there will be a whole lot of unintended consequences that ultimately make us less secure.”
It will take a new president to fulfill the vision described by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and other hawks: to build, fund, equip and deploy American military might that could change the security and stability of the region. But it’s unclear whether any serious 2016 candidate would dare turn that thought into a campaign pledge. It will be interesting to watch them try to criticize Obama’s limited use of force without criticizing “the generals” whom the president says agree with him. It will require something rarely seen from presidential candidates talking about foreign policy, much less Middle East counterterrorism strategy. It will require nuance.
Abroad, Obama does not stand alone. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who also visited the Pentagon earlier Monday and later spoke at the German Marshall Fund, said that France was the top contributor to air war over Iraq though it is not participating in strikes on Syria, and offered no indication French forces would. “We think there are no other solutions today but the one we are applying,” Le Drian said, backing Obama’s strategy of training Iraqi military, helping Kurd fighters, retaking lost territory and ensuring Iraq’s government is ethnically inclusive. “This is going to take a lot of time.”
“As to Syria,” Le Drian said, “chaos is such between one side and the other that it is difficult to see any other military solutions there, too.”
France and the U.S. are close partners, but Le Drian, like many of Obama’s critics, long has feared the Middle East’s terrorist groups will link up and spread across the region in a real way that will directly threaten the West. On this, even Le Drian, who has now faced his third Obama defense secretary, warned that if more isn’t done – military and politically, with the United Nations, to pacify the region, terrorism will be on his doorstep. While the U.S. obsesses over Iraq and Syria, Le Drian explained he is focused on Libya. For now, he said, there are few foreign fighters there. But he estimated there are up to 15,000 in Syria and Iraq. “The day some will come from Syria to Libya, they will be 200 miles from the French coast,” he warned, “which is why Libya must be the object of a very strong preoccupation of all of us.”
So, as Obama searches for that “effective partner on the ground” to defeat ISIS, the populations of Syria, Iraq, Libya and the rest of the region hear the same message. For the foreseeable future, the Obama doctrine remains as it always was: there is no military solution to terrorism, in Iraq, Syria, Libya, or any of these countries.
“We are not going to rank barbarism,” said Le Drian. “The situation I’m describing it’s not sad, it’s dangerous… the only solution is a political solution. ”