President Barack Obama’s speech last night ended with paeans to the virtues of American global leadership. That sort of talk would be unexceptional but for the fact that it concluded a speech about U.S .efforts to stabilize Iraq, a nation whose current strife owes enough to past U.S. policies to suggest modesty about new ones.
The hubris was not confined to the president’s rhetoric. The policy he outlined puts great faith in the transformative powers of minor exertions of U.S. military power. The nine brutal years U.S. forces spent trying to reorder Iraq’s politics with ground forces, vast infusions of aid and military training apparently taught this administration not to avoid such projects but to try them on the cheap. In the name of counterterrorism, the president now proposes to manage civil wars in Iraq and Syria with bombs, smaller checks and new training for rebels and militias that we pretend are liberal.
The White House billed the speech as a new strategy to defeat the Islamic State. But what the president outlined is neither new nor truly strategic. Besides the expected expansion of air attacks into Syria, the president announced no new polices. And the plan is likely to fail because it is not strategic: Its means are weakly connected to its stated ends.
The first element of the plan is continued use of U.S. air power to support Iraqi offensives against the Islamic State. While these efforts are likely to contain the Islamic State, defeating it is far more difficult. U.S. training and aid is supposed to remedy the Iraqi military’s disastrous recent performance. But the failure of past efforts to professionalize the Iraqi military should make us skeptical about succeeding at it now. It’s tough to build a competent multi‐sect military on top of a corrupt state dominated by one sect. Kurdish Peshmerga forces are more proficient, but they are not likely to advance too far against the Islamic State. Doing so would upset Iraq’s other communities.
The president also plans increased aid for the “moderate” Syrian opposition, the weakest party in Syria’s three‐sided civil war. That seems likely to prolong the war, and by tying up Syria’s military, to aid the Islamic State. We cannot sensibly remain a counter‐revolutionary power on Iraq’s side of the border and a revolutionary one on Syria’s. Yet the president refused to help Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government. He has argued that Assad’s conduct against its own people destroyed his legitimacy, as if Assad had legitimacy to lose and liberalism was a plausible alternative in Syria today.
The president is right to point out that Iraq’s politics are the key to the Islamic State’s fortunes. If the Sunni tribes turn on the Islamic State, it will struggle to survive. But he’s wrong to insist that only an “inclusive” Iraqi government can produce that outcome. Why the new Shiite‐dominated government will be much more amenable to Sunnis than the last is not clear. Iraqi‐style inclusiveness may fuel the insurgency rather than end it. Why insist on Baghdad’s central control over the Sunnis while increasing the Kurds’ already substantial autonomy by arming them? Stability in Iraq does not require mimicking Western‐style government.
A real strategy to defeat the Islamic State would suggest choices between these competing goals. It would mean holding our noses and helping Assad run Syria — or least not undermining his government. It would at least consider pushing for greater autonomy for Sunni areas. And it would not preemptively rule out U.S. ground forces.
If the Islamic State is the great threat that the president claims, its destruction should merit greater risk and cost. Our leaders’ unwillingness to make hard choices and take bigger risks indicates that their rhetoric about the threat outstrips the reality. We should not fight wars that we will sacrifice so little to win.