Today, my fellow Times of Israel opinionnaire Avi Woolf brought to my attention an article at the Observer by John Schindler which refers to ‘Obama’s collapsing war on the Islamic State’. The title is uninspiring except to those who seek with every breath to damn the American President.
Apart from the article’s main weakness, which is that the author appears to be unhappy with democratic civilian control over the armed forces; the piece begs a question. The article assumes that President Obama is conducting a war against the Islamic State and that the war is collapsing.
I suggest that, on the contrary, President Obama is not conducting a war against Daesh, and it’s with good reason that he’s not doing so.
America’s and the West’s policy of half-heartedly trying to oust Ducky Assad, along with other American and Western policy failures in the Middle East, created the conditions for Daesh to exist. Making Daesh go away by brisk economical application of armed force would be a good thing if it were possible, but it probably isn’t, and the game isn’t worth the candle. Indeed, the fact that Daesh fondly wishes for this war is good enough reason not to make it. This is why the US and its allies have not fought a war to destroy Daesh.
Last year, when people were crying havoc and trying to let slip the dogs of war in Ukraine, I wrote about the Weinberger Doctrine.
I invoked the name of the late Caspar Weinberger, who was Secretary of Defence to the sainted President Ronald Reagan, because he laid out an excellent set of rules to govern the use of American combat power, I once again quote from his 1984 National Press Club speech:
- First, the United States should not commit forces to combat overseas unless the particular engagement or occasion is deemed vital to our national interest or that of our allies. That emphatically does not mean that we should declare beforehand, as we did with Korea in 1950, that a particular area is outside our strategic perimeter.
- Second, if we decide it is necessary to put combat troops into a given situation, we should do so wholeheartedly, and with the clear intention of winning. If we are unwilling to commit the forces or resources necessary to achieve our objectives, we should not commit them at all. Of course if the particular situation requires only limited force to win our objectives, then we should not hesitate to commit forces sized accordingly. When Hitler broke treaties and remilitarized the Rhineland, small combat forces then could perhaps have prevented the Holocaust of World War II
- Third, if we do decide to commit forces to combat overseas, we should have clearly defined political and military objectives. And we should know precisely how our forces can accomplish those clearly defined objectives. And we should have and send the forces needed to do just that. As Clausewitz wrote, “no one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it.”
- Fourth, the relationship between our objectives and the forces we have committed — their size, composition and disposition — must be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary. Conditions and objectives invariably change during the course of a conflict. When they do change, then so must our combat requirements. We must continuously keep as a beacon light before us the basic questions: “is this conflict in our national interest?” “Does our national interest require us to fight, to use force of arms?” If the answers are “yes”, then we must win. If the answers are “no,” then we should not be in combat.
- Fifth, before the U.S. commits combat forces abroad, there must be some reasonable assurance we will have the support of the American people and their elected representatives in Congress. This support cannot be achieved unless we are candid in making clear the threats we face; the support cannot be sustained without continuing and close consultation. We cannot fight a battle with the Congress at home while asking our troops to win a war overseas or, as in the case of Vietnam, in effect asking our troops not to win, but just to be there.
- Finally, the commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort.
If I hold up Weinberger’s very rational and useful yardstick to applying American armed force against Daesh in anything but the most limited way, I can not find even an equivocal case to fight a war against ‘the so-called Islamic State’:
- The United States’ vital national interests are not at stake, nor are those of any American allies. If the question is must the US fight, the answer is clearly no.
- There is no sign whatever that the American people and Congress would support a war against Daesh. It is, indeed, more than likely that if the current Administration went to war against the IS, the US Congress would do its utmost to see the Administration visibly fail in its aims.
Keeping the Russians out of Syria, a place they have been in since the 1950s, is clearly not a vital US interest. We can see this because although one might like to imagine a Syria as friendly to the West as Oman or Qatar, in the past 70 years the US has not materially suffered from Russia in Syria.
What we observe now is that the US has been orchestrating coalition action against Daesh intended to contain the Islamic State, and to degrade its effectiveness against its neighbours. That is not a war, at least not for the United States.
Has Daesh been contained? Yes. Has its effectiveness against its neighbours been degraded? Yes. Is that a collapse? No.
American and Western policy in Syria and Iraq is in a shambles because it has been poorly conducted since 2003. The hope of a free, united, democratic Iraq has collapsed. President Obama’s desire to see Bashar Assad’s regime overthrown: that has collapsed.
It’s not a collapse of America’s war on Daesh because there isn’t one.