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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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Obama v Putin as G20 meets in Syria’s shadow

By Adam Quinn, University of Birmingham

The G20 begins today and whether this is the best or the worst of times depends on how important one considers Syria to be. Because the manoeuvring and diplomacy surrounding the increasingly vicious civil war – and the prospect of international intervention – is likely to consume a good deal of the oxygen in the environs of St Petersburg.

Oxygen that might otherwise have been spent on discussing other urgent issues. The founding raison d’être of the G20 was to bring together the leaders of the world’s largest economies for the purpose of managing and securing the global economic system, and the in-tray for those devoted to that task in 2013 is not light.

Growth, financial regulation, tax avoidance, public spending levels and development investment represent just a sampler of the urgent issues awaiting deliberation by those charged with keeping the global economy alive amid the rolling aftermath of the financial crisis.

But the summit also brings together several of the main players in the stand-off over Syria at the very moment that the United States is readying itself to deliver air strikes against the Assad regime.

So there’s no doubt that there will be intense wrangling over the geopolitics of the Levant. The only question is how thoroughly the spectre of Middle East conflict will subvert the original agenda.

Red line fever

Barack Obama goes into the gathering publicly committed to military action, but uncertain of the necessary support for it either at home or abroad. Having drawn a “red line” – perhaps deliberately, perhaps with inadvertent firmness – against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government, he now argues that the credibility of the US, and of the international community’s prohibition of the use of poison gas, is on the line.

He is committed to a campaign of limited military strikes, with the intent of sending “a shot across the bow” of the Assad regime.

At home, his administration is engaged in a frantic effort to shore up Congressional support since his unexpected decision to consult the legislature before taking action. This has shown some tentative but erratic signs of bearing fruit.

Internationally things are less hospitable. A majority of the national leaders among whom he will spend the coming days are leaning with varying degrees of firmness against his planned show of force. Indeed, he is likely to face more than scepticism – but rather outright opposition – to his plan from Russia, the chair and host of the summit.

Even if this week’s gathering were limited to the old G8 – a far cosier gathering dominated by traditional US allies even after extending to include Russia – Obama would have faced an uphill battle to enlist support. Germany has made it quite clear that it will play no part whatever in lending legitimacy to US military action. The UK, first name on the team-sheet when it comes to suppporting the US in its military interventions in recent decades, has ruled itself out of any participation, David Cameron’s initial bullish enthusiasm cut down by a parliamentary vote last week.

Special relationship: Commons voted against UK support for strikes. Stefan Roussseau/PA Wire

Of its traditional European allies, only France – ironically the focus of blistering American ire for its public resistance to the Iraq invasion of 2003 – has thus far offered full support. Even that remains to be tested by a vote of the National Assembly.

At the G20 gathering, those who follow the niceties of transatlantic relations closely can expect to enjoy the sight of British diplomacy straining to shore up what remains of the “special relationship” in the aftermath of the sucker punch delivered by the UK parliament last week. It will also be interesting to watch the French president, François Hollande, making what hay he can of his nation’s restored status as America’s “oldest ally”, at least as long as his own legislators allow him that pleasure.

But this is not the same G-club of two decades, or even one decade, ago. Russia was traditionally the odd-man out at gatherings of the G8 (the G20’s predecessor at the centre of global economic governance) thanks to its insistently explicit embrace of spheres of influence, national sovereignty and realpolitik. But now it finds itself bolstered by solidarity in these views from rising powers by China, India and Brazil.

Strained relations

While Russia’s defence of the Assad regime may represent unashamed self-interest in preserving a long-standing and ever more dependent client, it will not struggle to win supportive noises among the expanded G20 group for opposing the principle of the US as a “global policeman” outside of the UN Security Council framework.

Adding to current strains, Obama called off planned bilateral meetings with Vladimir Putin thanks to arguments over the fate of the leaker Edward Snowden, but it seems unlikely that either side has an interest in giving unrestrained vent in public to the simmering rancour over Syria. To judge by his advance remarks, Putin seems disposed to play this as simply one conflict of interest between the US and Russia, with areas of common interest still open for productive exploration in parallel.

Even if geopolitics must unavoidably intrude, he is unlikely to want to have “his” G20 summit entirely overshadowed by bickering over a sideshow at the expense of the economic agenda over which the event is supposed to preside. The US, meanwhile, while lobbying as best it can to win support in the background, would be foolish to force too explicit a head-count of supporters for its military plans, since such a move would be all too likely to reveal its relative isolation.

St Petersburg: window on the West. Wikimedia Commons

Russia’s behaviour during the Putin era has suggested that one of his chief diplomatic priorities is to manoeuvre into positions that oblige the US to treat Russia as a weighty interlocutor, whose great power interests must be taken into respectful account in calculating American actions. With Russia in the G20 chair and the balance of international opinion against US plans on Syria, he may feel confident enough that he is getting a taste of what he wants for something resembling (slightly complacent?) good cheer to manifest itself on his part.

In any case, those who expect that the summit will produce movement towards either widespread international endorsement of a US military strike of any kind, or the abandonment of Assad by his backers, have a vanishingly small chance of seeing their hopes realised.

Why does this matter? Because whatever Obama does militarily in Syria, he is almost certain to be doing it without authorisation from the UN Security Council, since it is within Russia’s power to block any moves on that front. This places US action outside the mainstream of international law, and leaves the US president reaching for the more nebulous and elusive banners of “legitimacy” and “the international community” to justify his actions.

With an uncooperative Security Council and wobbly NATO allies, a G20 which waves away US protestations that “something must be done” will represent one more multilateral forum in which American pretensions to speak as the representative voice of the management of world order have failed to gain purchase. Whatever America’s next step, it is shaping up to be a lonely one.

Adam Quinn receives funding from ESRC

The Conversation

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When the choice you’ve left yourself is between a risky, needless intervention and an irretrievable loss of credibility, you better believe you screwed up somewhere

So here we go again. The history of American military interventions has been running long enough that we must already have passed through both tragedy and farce by now, making this…. what, I wonder? Postmodern  meta-comedy? In any case, no one except those of us with a strong appetite for gallows humour is likely to be laughing anytime soon.

We should probably have seen it coming, though until recently it was reasonable to keep hoping against hope that things might conspire to allow the United States to keep treating the dystopian clusterfight in Syria with the sort of wary distance you give a gang who’ve taken to beating seven bells out of each other across the street. Their reasons matter only to them, you won’t be thanked for involving yourself, and there’s always the risk of a stray punch to the face or the nuts.

But in truth, from the moment President Obama opened his mouth and let loose the words ‘red line’ in reference to chemical weapons use, he was in the trap and bleeding. No matter that the colourful, pseudo-definitive phrase was an overstatement that spilled out unplanned during ‘off-the-cuff’ remarks. And no matter that it was sufficiently non-specific to allow some wiggle room when put to the test, as we discovered from the White House’s signally indecisive response to an alleged minor violation in May. The moment he uttered those syllables, the Credibility genie was out of the bottle and the United States’ destiny in regard to this conflict was no longer in its own hands.

Now that there has been a second, larger use of chemical weapons against the population of rebel territory, killing hundreds, and both the White House and Secretary of State have felt obliged to cut to the chase and point the finger at the Assad government, what is the alternative to military action? To tsk and look away? To circulate a note of disapproval for the amusement of Syria’s protectors and enablers at the United Nations? To tell Syria that the United States isn’t angry, just disappointed?

Before talk of ‘red lines’ was a Google-search away from the world’s eyes, a tartly critical non-response of this sort would actually have been very much the right thing to do. What has occurred represents, after all, an escalation only because the United States has chosen to define it as such, in a conflict interesting only for the depths of insolubility plumbed by its underlying causes. But now, this course cannot be taken without rendering the US government faintly ridiculous: a feckless dispenser of threats without substance at the back of them; all hat and no cattle. Given the handful of white-knuckle-dangerous scenarios in the foreseeable future in which the United States may well have cause to deliver ultimatums that need to be taken seriously – to face down countries who actually do possess some capacity to harm the United States core interests, like China, Iran or North Korea  – the bankruptcy of the currency of American red-line-drawing can scarcely be permitted. And so Credibility becomes the stake for which the United States is called to fight, and its list of options narrows to one.

Sigh. And so the stupid and the necessary, the pointless and the unavoidable, become awkward bedfellows in US policy. Again.  Having the defence of one’s own credibility as the primary rationale for military action means at once everything and nothing; it is simultaneously the most vacuous reason imaginable for launching a military enterprise and the most important reason there could be. No foreign policy, or presidency for that matter, is worth much of anything without it. Yet invoking its defence as the objective in a context such as this is painfully circular: we must do something because we said we would. The bill must be paid this hungover morning because yesterday we indulged in big talk at the card table and our bluff has been called. This is the situation in which the United States has planted itself.

There is now likely no avoiding the necessity of a military response, and yet the creation of that necessity arises entirely from the administration’s own lack of proportion and discipline in publicly parsing the nation’s negligible interest in this conflict. So careful and restrained in so many other instances, here it has has bet its credibility on the defence of a line that should never have been drawn; and condemned itself to take up arms, at great risk, in defence of national interests so far from core that they are barely perceptible. It is a mishap wrapped in an error inside a misjudgement.

But even as we accept the relentless inevitability of this logic as it cranks into gear, let us nevertheless take a moment to indulge ourselves in really giving flow to the annoyance and frustration merited by being put in this situation yet again by those charged with policy. Because let’s be under no illusions: on the merits, as my colleague Stefan Wolff has outlined in exemplary analysis elsewhere, as a substantive exercise aimed at achieving worthwhile political objectives, this is a fool’s errand.

Military strikes against the Syrian government at this juncture, whatever euphemistic short-of-war terminology the administration uses to characterise them, make the United States a voluntary participant in a messy, bloody civil war that shows all the signs of being interminable and has more sides than a twisted Rubik’s Cube.

If, as is most likely under present circumstances, US action stops short of anything capable of actually bringing about the fall of the Assad government, then the operation is from the outset a witlessly futile piece of gesture-militarism. It will only serve to inject new depths of enmity between it and its backers and the United States, while presumably increasing the likelihood that it will use all weapons at its disposal in an all-bets-are-off war of survival that now includes the Western alliance as belligerents.

If, on the other hand, it embraces the overthrow of the government as an objective, then it begins an open-ended conflict of unknowable outcome, in which its actions will be openly opposed by two global powers, Russia and China, with the capability to have their own say in the outcome, and a significant regional player, Iran, which is already making plausible threats to inflict pain if America rolls the dice.

And if, somehow, it should actually succeed in the face of all this in toppling the government, well then the real fun starts. The rebels whose victory the United States will have championed have shown themselves hopelessly divided from the off, and since then it has become clear that major factions wrestling for primacy are committed to radical Islamism and jihadism of a sort antithetical to anything that would be helpful to US interests in the region if empowered. Thus, even in the event of expensive victory, the United States would reap misery and uncertainty as to the identity and alignment of those forces that might rule instead. Sound at all familiar?

And let’s not, please, have talk of the suffering of civilians in the ongoing war as a basis for this intervention. It is undeniably true that their plight is grim. Recent figures have the death toll from fighting cruising past the 100,000 mark without slowing down, and 1.7 million more are displaced abroad. The disruption and pain visited upon the day-to-day life of those still alive within the country’s borders is less readily quantifiable, but hard to overstate. But to tell ourselves that flinging missiles at government installations, much as it might feel to the Energizer Bunnies of hawkish punditry like Doing Something, is pure delusion.

Civilians are suffering in Syria because there is a civil war. Neither side, however much they may lament the death and suffering of their own, really wants a negotiated peace if at the price of compromise; they want victory. Only when one or other side obtains something approximating it, and enough leverage to force the other into exhausted quietude, will this stop. So unless whatever strikes are taken now are part of a broader plan to bring about a final victory for one side, and a stable order arising from that victory, they will make no obvious contribution to alleviating civilian suffering. In fact it seems as likely or more that they will worsen it: if they undermine the government without toppling it, then they prolong the war, which is the underlying cause of the suffering; if the government falls, then the blood cost in reprisals against the currently ruling Alawites is unknowable; and of course, at the risk of stating the obvious, foreign bombs have a way of adding to the body count themselves, however worthy the intentions in which they are wrapped.

So why else do it? To preserve the sanctity of the ‘essential’ international norm against chemical weapons? In a war where a hundred thousand have been shot, blown up or worse, sustaining the idea that the death of a few hundred from noxious gas represents a sudden appearance of uncivilised behaviour will rightly strike many as Jesuitical. Not to mention the fact that its presentation as a horror without modern precedent against which the United States must stand will also require ignoring some very awkward recent history.

To uphold international law? Pfft. At the risk of sounding cynical (which is a risk when your views on a subject are profoundly cynical), international law in a case such as this is pretty much whatever you want it to be. Based as it is on a haphazard cluster of vague principles, contradictory precedents and high-flown wind, international law, such as it exists, can either mandate action against those who kill their own people or protect their sovereignty in doing so. It can be used to insist that the UN should be the sole channel for decisions on action, or – if nebulous concepts such as legitimacy are to creep into play, and if we cherry-pick our precedents – accord coalitions of the willing the moral authority to act in service of humanity, depending on whom you see fit to believe. What different parties to the conflict believe is in turn is a function of what suits them at this moment.

The United States shouldn’t be propelling itself into action in Syria, and the reason for not doing so was the oldest and best for staying out of someone else’s war that there is: it has no core interests at stake, and no viable path to carving out any advantage without first taking on incalculable risk and cost. To strike now makes it a participant in a bleakly horrible little war, with consequences impossible to discern, from which no possible outcome seems obviously to its benefit. Congress doesn’t want it. The American people really don’t want it. Even the president doesn’t particularly seem to want it. But thanks to his red line, now it must be done. All for the sake of credibility. Plus ça change.

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