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US president Barack Obama has yet to work out exactly what America’s strategy is in confronting Islamic State (IS), and has been foolish enough to say so in public. Cue the foreseeable torrent of point-scoring from opponents.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp perceptively pointed out, however, a more sympathetic interpretation of what Obama meant in context is not “that he has no idea what he’s doing in Iraq”, but rather that:

… there is no good strategy available for fully defeating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

With all due respect to a Washington foreign policy community apparently surprised and annoyed by Obama’s reluctance to jump in with both feet with a major military intervention, his instincts are sound.

I have written in The Conversation before that the smorgasbord of unpalatable options available to Obama owes a great deal to the cataclysmically destabilising actions in the region of his predecessor, most especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I have also argued elsewhere that the president was wise to be extremely wary of wading into an interventionist role during the early stages of the Syrian civil war.

Arguments that the US could have averted IS’s rise by funnelling weapons to moderates at the right time are a comforting fantasy, predicated on an inflated estimation of the United States’ ability to shape events on the ground.

But let’s not re-litigate the past here. What can or should Obama do? And is he guilty of shilly-shallying in a situation that demands urgent action?

First, the obvious. IS’s rise is bad from the perspective of pretty much everybody except the group itself. As an ideological force it combines religious fundamentalism, sectarianism and brutality in such a strong brew that even al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be associated with its actions.

With its proclivity for mass executions, forced conversions and ethnic cleansing, IS has managed the impressive feat of being utterly friendless in a region where being the right person’s enemy is usually sufficient to make you at least one or two allies of convenience. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan put it:

It’s a phenomenal thing: Everybody hates ISIS – the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel. Nearly all Middle Eastern countries and their big-power backers (including Russia and probably China too) would like to see it crushed.

Its new tactic of gruesomely beheading kidnapped American journalists – partly as ransom-blackmail scheme, partly a pose of warped ideological bravado – has merely confirmed its status as the ne plus ultra of international pariahs. This should augur well for bringing about its ultimate defeat. The chief obstacle lies in the fact that while all these governments may not want to see IS triumphant, the incompatibilities between what they do want are sufficiently stark as to render concerted action tricky.

The decisions about limited US intervention that Obama has had to make thus far have been, if not so easy as to be automatic, then at least not among the most challenging he has ever had to make.

When northern Iraq’s Kurds, arguably the United States’ most solid and reliable allies in the region for the last two decades, needed support from the air to repel a sudden IS advance into their domain, retake a key dam and facilitate the escape of thousands of fleeing Yazidi civilians trapped on a mountain, it was an unwelcome re-entangling of the United States in intra-Iraqi conflict. But it was so obviously the right thing to do that in the end it presented little in the way of a dilemma.

US air forces have dropped arms and other supplies to Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
EPA/US Air Force

How – and whether – to go about the vastly larger task of breaking IS control over the territory it still commands is a far more difficult question. In Syria, where IS is firmly established as the dominant anti-government rebel force, there is no way that the United States can strike at it without tacitly aiding the cause of Bashar al-Assad. The UN has accused the regime of war crimes and Obama has explicitly demanded Assad should leave office.

Yet according to Obama’s top military adviser, there may be no way to really knock IS from its perch in either country without acting within Syria.

Even if we limit the question to action that might be taken within Iraq, while it may be clear that the US should be willing to act to defend its staunch Kurdish allies, it is far from clear that it can uncomplicatedly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Iraqi national government.

That government, whose closest international ally is Iran and whose brazenly sectarian Shia orientation – at least until Nouri al-Maliki’s toppling as prime minister in August – his replacement is yet to be tested – did more than anyone to feed the profound sense of disenfranchisement among the Sunni population that provided IS with the fertile soil in which its roots are now deeply embedded.

Even if Obama were to set aside all his rational and temperamental reservations about re-deploying US military resources more fully in Iraq, there is no reason to believe – as The Economist’s Matt Steinglass has pointed out – that the US knows any better now than it did in 2003 how to successfully navigate the essential next stage. That is to construct an Iraqi state with the pluralistic culture and institutions required to address the underlying source of disillusion and violent resistance on the part of Iraq’s Sunnis.

The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who has spent much time on the ground in the region today and over the past decade, may have offered the key insight. He suggests that the US is the last actor still clinging to the idea of “Iraq” as a viable political entity long after the “Iraqis” themselves, of all religious and ethnic stripes, have moved on.

If the US is to make it a priority to undermine – and ultimately destroy – IS as a political force, it will be a tough mission. It will require patient and skilful coalition-building, and a willingness to significantly compromise America’s ideals on other fronts.

Throughout such an effort, Obama will have to contend with a general population at home that is sick and tired of wars. Americans are disinclined to shed blood for anything short of a true emergency.

He will also face constant sniping from political opponents whose primary mode of engagement with foreign policy has become the issuing of vacuous paeans to strength, leadership and “urgency” – all of which Obama is asserted to have in insufficient quantity – rather than constructive engagement with the unhappy trade-offs America’s actually existing options demand.

If Obama is to take all this on, it would be useful to know not just whom the US would be seeking to kill and what bad things they have done, but towards what realistic, achievable end-state it would be fighting. That is the great unanswered question of US involvement in both Iraq and Syria today.

Being increasingly aware of this, it is no wonder Obama still considers his strategy a work in progress. Unencumbered by such awareness, his bellicose critics embody the facile faith in the utility of military force that did so much to generate America’s present Middle Eastern sorrows.

The Conversation

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The nuclear deal reached between the United States and Iran represents both a breakthrough and a risk for Barack Obama. A breakthrough because it stalls Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons capability for six months, in exchange for only moderate concessions on sanctions, while a bigger final settlement is haggled over. The very existence of such extended high-level negotiations, let alone ones concluding in agreement, marks a high for US-Iran diplomacy after 34 years alternating between fiery acrimony and deep freeze.

It is also a risk, however, because Obama is certain to face a blistering assault from powerful opponents of any compromise with Iran. Having made this the main play in his quest for a diplomatic legacy he must now rely for vindication on Iran following through to deliver a comprehensive compromise agreement.

The foremost critic of the deal in its aftermath has been Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who immediately declared it an “historic mistake” which had made the world less safe. He did not want for vocal support within the United States, however, where a number of prominent Congressional figures lined up to express their scepticism. These included not only the usual suspects from the hawkish Republican ranks, but also some prominent Democratic Senators who had been spearheading a push for tightening the American sanctions squeeze against Iran still further.

Meanwhile, predictably, the most conservative voices among the foreign policy punditocracy reacted with apoplexy, one condemning the deal as “abject surrender” and predicting a (justified) military response from a betrayed Israel.

Power of Israeli lobby

This coincidence of views is usual. The politics of America’s Middle East policy has for many years featured a close intertwining of views between American hawks and the Israeli right, sharing as they do the view that revolutionary Iran is a toxic actor in international affairs, not to be negotiated with, only cowed and vanquished through punitive means. Meanwhile, a majority of Congress, including members with more moderate views in other policy areas, has tended to avoid at all costs divergence with Israel on those issues it identifies as core to its security.

Netanyahu: “deal a mistake”. Ian Nicholson/PA Wire

This tendency, which has complex roots in both domestic politics and perceived shared national interests, is powerfully reinforced by the effective efforts of the “Israel Lobby”, whose effect on the political discourse has been mapped – controversially but not inaccurately – in detail by the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

The presence of these views means that for all the justified, if provisional, satisfaction currently felt within the Obama administration’s diplomatic team, there remains reason yet for some jangling of nerves. The worst-case scenario is that Israel might take matters into its own hands and carry out a military strike against Iran without American support. However, analysis from within Israel itself suggests that such a reckless and unilateral step is only an outside chance at least for now.

Thaw: Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

A more pressing fear, perhaps, is that those within the American political system who sympathise with Netanyahu’s analysis that a bad deal has been done may press ahead with their plans to vote through tougher sanctions against Iran when Congress reconvenes in December. The administration has already had to strain its political muscles to slow down Congressional progress towards this end while it pursued the most recent negotiations.

While this threat of an even tighter sanctions noose may have been a useful background threat during the latest round of talks, to have them inflicted now, in the context of what is supposed to be a period for confidence-building and reciprocity, would be disastrous for the administration’s diplomatic strategy.

Nevertheless, with Democratic senators Schumer and Menendez apparently determined to continue their push to escalate sanctions, and majority leader Harry Reid showing signs of willingness to allow them to do so, this must be a real fear.

Failure not an option

It seems plausible that at least some part of the Congressional critics’ initial hostility to the deal stems not just from its substance, but from chagrin that it appears to be the product of an extended project of secret diplomacy about which they were kept in the dark despite their attachment to the issue.

Once that sentiment has died down and the details have been examined more soberly, it may prove possible to convince enough of Congress – if not the most strident Iran hawks – to hold off on any new sanctions push at least long enough to see how the coming six months of further negotiations pan out. And in the final analysis, Obama always has his veto power as a last resort, though on such a white-hot political issue that would be a painful stretch indeed for a presidency not short on acrimony.

In making the case for circumspect and patient perseverance with his preferred diplomatic track, Obama has the advantage that his recommended course is the only one that holds out any hope whatsoever of a good ending in strategic terms. It has for a long time been clear that there are no good military options for trying to end Iran’s nuclear programme, and even if executed perfectly such an operation could achieve only a partial and temporary victory in setting back Iranian capabilities.

Meanwhile, the hawks’ alternative vision of how a hard-line diplomatic track might work – that the United States should tear up the current deal and inflict ever-harsher sanctions on Iran until the regime either collapses or declares unconditional surrender – shows all the hallmarks of ideology-tinted fantasy. If attempted, such a course would far more likely set the stage for degeneration into intractable stand-off and ultimately a war of unknowable consequence.

In the final analysis, then, the president’s best hope of winning provisional embrace of his deal and further time for diplomacy lies in the fact that among imperfect options it is the only sane and realistic course. But then perhaps relying on the realism of members of the present US Congress requires a triumph of hope over realism in itself.

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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